SACRAMENTO — Brushing aside warnings that the task might be impossible, the California Transportation Commission on Thursday ordered its staff to find out if Amtrak runs operating between Los Angeles and San Diego can be extended to Simi Valley while the Ventura Freeway is being expanded.
Commissioners responded with enthusiasm to a proposal by state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) to use the San Diegan trains to relieve San Fernando Valley congestion that is expected to increase when the freeway widening begins in December.
Under Robbins' proposal, San Diegan trains would make three round trips daily between Simi Valley and Union Station in Los Angeles, stopping at Chatsworth, Van Nuys, Burbank and Glendale.
Staff members sought to sidetrack or delay the proposal, saying that new trains might have to be leased or bought and that subsidies probably would be insufficient.
And Alan H. Hendrix, chief of highway development for the state Department of Transportation, estimated that it would take 18 months to determine if agreements can be worked out with Amtrak, which owns the trains, and the Southern Pacific, which owns the tracks.
Hendrix predicted that such a service would do little to relieve freeway congestion.
But commissioners appeared to agree with Commissioner Bruce Nestande that the freeway expansion presents a crisis requiring immediate action.
Staff members were ordered to return with a plan for implementing the Robbins proposal by January at the latest, and to hire an outside consultant if needed to speed the work.
Commissioners, most of whom are appointed by the governor, oversee rail and highway spending in the state.
Robbins, a member of the commission, said the proposed service "would utilize existing trains and existing tracks. We're talking about spending in the thousands, not millions."
Santa Barbara Stop
Amtrak already is scheduled to begin operating one San Diegan train to Santa Barbara by November, and part of Robbins' plan is to adjust the departure times of the train to service commuters.
The other two round trips each day could be created by using San Diegan trains during "dead time," when they are sitting at Union Station before returning to San Diego.
Los Angeles, Burbank and Simi Valley have indicated a willingness to contribute to the service.
Officials of Amtrak and Southern Pacific did not rule out the proposal, but said there would be major problems.
Amtrak could operate the service, said spokesman Arthur Lloyd, "but we would have to be fully reimbursed."
A Southern Pacific spokesman said that, although no study has been made of the proposal, a "pretty heavy capital investment" would be needed to lengthen parallel railroad tracks to allow freight trains to get out of the way of faster commuter trains.