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Local News

South Coast Commuter Rail May Be Back on Track

State plan would provide a Pacific Surfliner at rush hour between Ventura County and Goleta

Commuter-rail service between Ventura County and Goleta may be back on track if a plan to reschedule an existing Amtrak train is adopted. The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments will discuss the proposal on Thursday.
Commuter-rail service between Ventura County and Goleta may be back on track if a plan to reschedule an existing Amtrak train is adopted. The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments will discuss the proposal on Thursday. (Melinda Burns / Noozhawk photo)

After years of talk but no action, a commuter train service to and from Goleta, serving some of the 15,000 Ventura County residents who commute daily to the South Coast, is on the horizon for next spring, according to state officials.

The deal is still in the works, but officials said they’re hopeful that beginning in April 2016, Amtrak will “retime” one of its Pacific Surfliner passenger trains so that it sets out before 7 a.m. from Moorpark or Oxnard and arrives in Goleta about 7:50 a.m., effectively becoming a commuter train.

In the afternoon, the Surfliner would leave Goleta for Ventura County shortly after 5 p.m.

The train would seat up to 500 people in six cars. With a monthly pass, a one-way ticket would cost about $4.

“It’s taken a long time to make this happen,” said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who negotiated the plan as chairwoman of the state Senate’s Select Committee on Passenger Rail. “We had to work very hard to get the governor’s attention.

"We’re asking for one of the newer trains, with Wi-Fi connections and a dining and coffee car. Hopefully, people can do their work or, God forbid, look out the window at that exquisite ocean view. They can make it a habit, without all the stress and strain and spewing of greenhouse gases on the freeway.”

On Thursday, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments board will hear a presentation on the Surfliner plan by Chad Edison, deputy secretary of the California State Transportation Agency.

Before Jackson’s plan can go forward, state officials said, they must obtain the approval of Union Pacific Railroad, the owner of the tracks, and sign operating agreements and servicing contracts.

The meeting is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. in the county Administration Building.

“This is the most optimistic we’ve ever been,” said Gregg Hart, an SBCAG spokesman. “The state is committed to doing this. There don’t appear to be any obstacles.”

In letters to SBCAG on Wednesday, several community groups, including the Community Environmental Council and the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation, praised the plan as a “creative partial solution to the problem,” but urged the board not to forget its mandate to put in place a “genuine commuter rail service” – that is, an additional train on the tracks, dedicated solely to serving commuters.

In 2008, county voters set aside $25 million for such a service as part of Measure A, a local sales tax measure for transportation.

The current commute from Oxnard to Goleta takes at least an hour, about as long as a train ride, but there can be many delays.

Drivers recently endured months of freeway widening work between Mussel Shoals and Carpinteria. New carpool lanes are now operating in two directions there, but construction on two highway bridges in Carpinteria is expected to begin next year, followed by freeway widening through Montecito, beginning in 2017.

A commuter rail service between Ventura and Goleta has been on the books in county planning documents since 2006.

Years ago, the Association of Governments approached state officials about retiming Surfliner No. 761, which arrives in Goleta at 10:34 a.m., but there was concern that a train heading north early in the morning from Los Angeles could cause delays for southbound Metrolink commuter trains.

The association then sought to negotiate a lease with Union Pacific, the owner of the tracks, in order to add a train between Ventura County and Goleta for commuters. But even with an offer of $30 million on the table, Union Pacific would not budge, Hart said.

“We tried diligently for years,” he said. “It wasn’t going to go anywhere.”

Up in Sacramento, Jackson returned to the original idea of tweaking Amtrak schedules for a commuter train, and persuaded state transportation officials to get on board.

As proposed, instead of leaving Los Angeles in the morning, the train would leave for Ventura County the evening before the trip up to Goleta.

It turns out, Hart said, that retiming Surfliner No. 761 could even increase ridership. Under its present schedule, he said, No. 761 has one of the worst performance records of any Amtrak train in the San Diego-San Luis Obispo corridor.

Finally, Jackson, who also served on a key budget subcommittee for energy and transportation, got the governor’s office to agree to set aside for passenger rail some of the funding that had been earmarked for high-speed rail under the state’s Cap-and-Trade Program, which is designed to reduce greenhouse gas.

The Surfliner retiming, Jackson said, is essentially a schedule change and will not cost extra money. But it’s just the first step in reducing commuter traffic, she said.

The South Coast will eventually need a second commuter train, and that means returning to the negotiating table with Union Pacific, Jackson said.

However the train arrives, it sounds good to George Foulsham, who carpools daily from Oxnard to UCSB, where he is the director of news and media relations.

“I love trains,” Foulsham said, speaking as a commuter. “It would be an awesome way to get to campus.”

— Melinda Burns is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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