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2-County Rail Line to Be Studied

A train linking Ventura and Santa Barbara counties is cited as an alternative to growing congestion on a 35-mile stretch of the 101.

August 26, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Transportation officials from Ventura and Santa Barbara counties agreed Wednesday to explore the possibility of establishing a commuter rail line between the two counties to ease traffic congestion on the 101 Freeway.

Acknowledging that starting a commuter line would be costly and time-consuming, officials said every means of alternative transportation should be pursued to find a solution to the growing traffic congestion on the 35-mile stretch of highway.

"We're not going to wait for some future date to start this," said Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara). "We've already started."

Capps cosponsored a transportation conference in Santa Barbara to discuss solutions to the commuter problem, made worse by a severe shortage of housing for middle-class families in Santa Barbara.

Instead, people have been buying homes in less-expensive Ventura County and commuting to their jobs in Santa Barbara and Goleta, clogging the freeway that narrows to two lanes through Carpinteria and Montecito.

"We need to find out what's possible and what's simply not possible," said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Naomi Schwartz. "Rail is a popular option in this community. We look at an empty railroad corridor most of the day."

But a rail line would be expensive and require the cooperation of the privately owned Union Pacific Railroad, whose first priority is moving freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach across the country, railroad officials said.

"We don't want to give the appearance of being uncooperative but we will do what we can to help our franchise," said Jerry Wilmoth, general manager of network infrastructure for Union Pacific. "We have a limited right of way, and we don't want to lose our ability to expand. In some places, there just isn't enough room. It's like putting a Ferrari and Volkswagen together on the freeway. They just don't work very well."

Yet Wilmoth and Scott Moore, general manager of the railroad's public-private partnership, said they would be willing to talk with representatives from the two counties.

"It's not hopeless, it's challenging. But maybe that's the same thing," Wilmoth said. "It's something we don't take lightly. But it takes a lot of work. We certainly want to be involved to find creative solutions that in the end can work."

Ginger Gherardi, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, suggested the first step in that process should be a rail study to determine the operational costs of a commuter line, the cost of a bus service to shuttle people from train stations to their workplaces, the number of people who would ride the buses, where train stations would be located and the type of train that would be used.

"The two counties need to come together to come up with planning dollars to conduct the study," Gherardi said. "The outcomes will determine if we have the resources to establish a line. We need to get started on that right away."

She said Amtrak would soon be starting a morning route from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo that would stop in Ventura and Santa Barbara. The number of commuters who use the train would provide a good indication of how popular a commuter-only line might be, she said.

"That Amtrak service has zero cost locally," she added.

But Warren Weber, manager of rail operations for the California Department of Transportation, said for the train to be useful to Ventura commuters, it would have to depart Los Angeles at 6 a.m., which would cut into the leisure travel market. He said that was not something he wanted to risk.

Gherardi later said she believed the schedule was negotiable.

David Solow, Metrolink executive director, said he would be willing to talk about expanding the service into Santa Barbara County.

"I'm here to help, but it's going to cost you a lot," Solow said. "There's substantial operating costs involved in order for us to grow. You need to understand it's something you're stuck with for a very long time."

The Metrolink rail system now operates in Ventura County, taking commuters as far north as Montalvo. The service costs Ventura County $5.5 million a year plus $550,000 paid annually to Union Pacific to use its rails, Gherardi said.

The conference was cosponsored by Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long and Schwartz. About 100 people attended the meeting, including Dennis Story, chairman of coastalrailnow.org, an organization pushing for a rail line between the counties.

"I'm optimistic," said Story, who lives in Santa Barbara. "The rail makes so much sense. It's kind of the way we're going."

But Ventura Mayor Brian Brennan, who attended the conference, said he was not sure. He said he favored establishing a light-rail system in the median of the 101 Freeway instead.

"That model's dead," Brennan said of the Union Pacific rail-line idea. "It's time to go with a new model."

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