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Ventura Gets Aboard Transit Center Plan

City Council endorses the concept of a train, bus and taxi station. But cost is a concern.

October 01, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Preparing for the city's future transportation needs, Ventura officials have endorsed a plan to develop a regional transit center in the downtown area.

The City Council on Monday night reviewed a consultant's study that looked at someday building a facility on one of three downtown sites that would combine Amtrak and Metrolink train service along with local bus and taxi service.

The goal is to connect various modes of public transit in one convenient location for residents and tourists traveling within the county as well as to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. A secondary goal of the project, which officials acknowledge is at least a decade away, is to decrease dependence on the automobile.

"It's an important element of the future vitality of the city," Councilman Neal Andrews said. "All of our efforts to create a vital downtown involve resolving some critical transportation issues. To ensure this is a fine place to live, we have to make sure to reduce transportation-related pollution and traffic congestion."

The city's transportation and traffic consultants looked at three potential sites, including the Ventura County Fairgrounds, which has an Amtrak station; the parking lot of the Holiday Inn at Harbor Boulevard and California Street; and a vacant triangular lot near San Jon Road that is the site of Ventura's original train station.

Each site has several advantages and disadvantages. These include proximity to existing rail lines and downtown pedestrian areas versus the need to reroute bus service and fears of congestion during the county fair.

But the greatest obstacle to the transit concept, included in the council's two-year action plan, could be the price. City planners estimate the cost of building a transit center at $13 million to $19 million, not including the costs of acquiring property.

"That's a chunk of money for a city our size," said Mayor Ray Di Guilio, the only council member to vote against the idea. "I don't think you build that size of facility unless there is some guarantee that you'll be able to see a return of revenue."

Deputy Mayor Brian Brennan said it's time for Ventura to create a more workable and accessible mass transit system.

"Fifty percent of all energy in California goes to transportation," he said. "Any time you can make it convenient and easy to use alternative modes of transportation, I think we're light-years ahead. The goal is long-term planning."

Connecting Metrolink service, which currently stops in Montalvo, with the Amtrak station also requires either building a second set of tracks or working out an arrangement with Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the rail line between the sites.

Tom Mericle, the city's transportation engineer, said a franchise agreement the railroad had with the city since the late '70s expired in August and is up for renegotiation. One estimate suggests Union Pacific may want as much as $1 million a year to use its tracks.

Mericle said a consolidated center would probably increase public transit ridership and also draw passengers from Ojai, Santa Paula and Fillmore.

"Having a major transit facility in our downtown area allows us to serve a lot more than the public-transit-dependent," he said. "Right now, our local bus service is used by people who don't own cars. What we're trying to do as a city is ... give people a real viable choice to use something other than their car."

The council decided to leave its options open and directed staff to work with other city planners and transportation officials to ensure that the transit center concept is included in future documents, such as the downtown specific plan and Ventura's comprehensive plan, which considers projects over the next 20 years.

The city will also work with the Ventura County Fair Board to possibly include the idea for a transit center in that agency's upcoming master plan for Seaside Park.

"We're talking about a project that's at least 10 to 15 years way, but if you don't start planning it, you don't get there," said Andrews, who offered his colleagues a fourth site to consider.

Andrews suggested approaching Caltrans about expanding the freeway overpass at California Street to make it large enough for a transit center.

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