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Time to Get Moving on Mass Transit, Dukakis Says

At a transportation forum today, the former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee will talk up the virtues of taking the bus and riding commuter trains.

Drawing a lesson from Santa Barbara County's overwhelming approval of Measure A, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis suggests
Drawing a lesson from Santa Barbara County’s overwhelming approval of Measure A, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis suggests “the people are way ahead of the politicians on this issue.” (UCLA School of Public Affairs photo)

When Michael Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, he took the subway to work every day.

At the time, he was helping his state become the first in the nation to divert to public transit systems billions of dollars already earmarked for highway widening. But Dukakis — who says he and his wife, Kitty, have never needed more than one car between them — insists his chosen gubernatorial mode of transport wasn’t for political show.

“I’d been riding it since I was 4,” he told Noozhawk.

Perhaps for this reason, promoting public transit has always felt like a natural fit for the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee and current UCLA and Northeastern University professor.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, the 75-year-old Dukakis, who has also served on the board of directors at Amtrak, will be at the Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery, talking up the virtues of taking the bus and riding commuter trains, during a free informational forum celebrating the November passage of Measure A. The initiative, passed by nearly 80 percent of Santa Barbara County voters, continues for 30 more years an existing half-cent sales tax (called Measure D) for the benefit of local transportation projects.

The focus of Saturday’s forum will be public transit, and the ways in which Measure A — slated to generate an estimated $1 billion over three decades — will produce opportunities in for local mass-transit systems, which on the South Coast have been steadily gaining ridership.

Speaking to Noozhawk by phone Friday morning, Dukakis said that although county residents should feel proud to have passed the measure, the important thing now is to get cracking.

“People have been talking about Santa Barbara-to-Ventura (commuter rail) for as long as I’ve been here,” he said, referring to how he has spent the last 14 winters in Los Angeles, working as a visiting professor at UCLA. “The point is not to try to spend the next five years trying to figure it out. We’ve got to get moving.”

Also on hand Saturday will be Gregg Hart, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, who will discuss how money from Measure A — which takes effect when Measure D expires in 2010 — will be spent.

Although nearly 15 percent of the money will be used to widen freeways, a good portion will also be used on mass transit. For instance, $25 million will be spent on commuter rail. (Click here to read more about the funding breakdown.)

In the short term, Hart said, officials are trying to improve service by helping Amtrak alter its schedules, so commuters from Ventura arrive in Santa Barbara closer to 8 a.m., instead of the current 10 a.m.

Hart said efforts are currently under way to make that happen, adding that it’s possible commuters could be arriving earlier in as soon as a year.

“We are at the early stages of conversation with Caltrans,” he said. “However, nothing is easy.”

For instance, he said, earlier arrival in Santa Barbara could mean unreasonably earlier departure from Los Angeles. But he said there are some promising new potential funding sources — such as a federal stimulus bill for rail under the Obama administration — that could be used to purchase an extra train, thereby allowing for the best of both worlds.

In the long term, there are plans to build more rest pockets — known in the rail world as sidings — to increase the punctuality of the Amtrak trains. As it is, the Amtrak trains often are late when their schedules conflict with oncoming freight trains, and the relatively small number of sidings between Santa Barbara and Goleta often means they must waste precious time by waiting longer than would otherwise be necessary.

For local residents, Measure A will also mean more bicycle lanes, bicycle paths and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, because the initiative will allocate $26 million for them on the South Coast.

It also will allow for the continuation of commuter buses such as the Coastal Express, which loops between Santa Barbara and Ventura, and the Clean Air Express, which caters to commuters traveling in the opposite direction, between Santa Barbara and the North County.

Both services have expanded dramatically; the Coastal Express by 350 percent in seven years, and the Clean Air Express by 150 percent over the past decade. (Both now provide some 200,000 rides a year.)

But without the renewed funding from Measure A — to the tune of $25 million — the services would have been in peril. Now, they may even expand, Hart said.

Measure A’s passage also offsets some of the cuts faced by the South Coast’s MTD bus service as a result of the state budget impasse, Hart said. What’s more, it means MTD’s plans for a new Chapala Street transit center can continue to move forward.

In any case, Dukakis, who served as Massachusetts governor for 12 years, until 1991, said it’s imperative that Santa Barbara County — and the rest of the nation — act quickly on mass transit. Especially if the United States wants to keep up with the rest of the world, he said.

In Europe, he said, countries are building a continent-wide high-speed rail system on which trains will travel at speeds of 200 mph. China and Japan, too, are speeding past the United States with light-rail projects, he said.

“It’s pretty embarrassing,” he said. The stimulus bill, he added, “is a great opportunity. Not only to get people to work and get this economy back on track, but to invest in something that is going to make a huge difference.”

Dukakis also paraphrased an economist friend of his who came up with an alternative for the national auto bailout.

“Why not give them a $5 billion contract to build 100,000 buses?” He said. “They do make buses, you know.”

Even though Dukakis thinks Santa Barbara, like the rest of the nation, has a long way to go in terms of public transit, he said Measure A’s landslide approval is impressive.

“It tells you something,” he said. “I think the people are way ahead of the politicians on this issue.”

Saturday’s forum is sponsored by the Alliance for Sustainable and Equitable Regional Transportation (ASERT), the Community Environmental Council and Noozhawk. Seizing the Moment: Sustainable Transportation in the Obama Era will be held 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery, 40 E. Anapamu St. There is no charge for the event.

A second, companion regional transportation forum will be held next week in Ventura. That forum — Moving the Central Coast Forward: Regional Transportation Action Forum — is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to noon Jan. 31 at Ventura College, 4667 Telegraph Road, Ventura. There is no charge for the event.

The project was initiated by the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation (COAST) and funded by a grant from the McCune Foundation.

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