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On This 33-Mile Commute, You Are Coasting

Stress takes a back seat as a bus line's patrons travel to and from Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

June 27, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

As far as Southern California commutes go, it's not so bad.

On one side of U.S. Highway 101 is the Pacific Ocean, on the other, rolling green hills and rugged mountains.

Best of all, a one-way ticket on the 33-mile Coastal Express bus route between Ventura and Goleta in Santa Barbara County costs only $2.

It's a bargain for commuters who would rather be reading, taking in the eye-popping scenery or celebrating the birthday of a fellow passenger than driving. And while the ride can sometimes take up to 1 1/2 hours, it has advantages.

"I think it actually decreases my stress," said Jim Wilmoth, 39, a Ventura resident who works for a software company in Goleta, six miles north of Santa Barbara. "You don't get road rage...."

Introduced three years ago, the Coastal Express has become the second most popular bus route in Ventura County. It carried 24,000 riders in the first three months of the year. Four buses make the trip in each direction daily.

Only the route between Ventura and Santa Paula on California 126 carries more riders, said Vic Kamhi, transit director for the Ventura County Transportation Commission, which operates the service. That route carried 39,000 riders during the same period.

Officials expect ridership on the Coastal Express to continue to increase and in August will add three buses -- one northbound and two southbound -- during peak hours, Kamhi said.

Riders include high-tech engineers, college students, domestic workers and Santa Barbara city and county employees, many of whom cannot afford to live in the seaside community, where the median home price is $1.1 million.

Tim Hazeltine, 44, is one of the regulars. A historic preservation consultant from Camarillo, Hazeltine rides the Coastal Express four days a week to his office in downtown Santa Barbara. He climbs aboard at the Ventura County Government Center every morning at 6:50 and reaches his destination by 7:40, if traffic cooperates.

"It's convenient and it saves money," Hazeltine said as he took a break from chatting with bus driver Cherrie Abarca. "We have potlucks on the bus on certain holidays and people bring cupcakes on birthdays. It's a little mobile community."

Each air-conditioned motor coach has 57 plush, high-backed seats that deliver passengers to Santa Barbara and back throughout the day and on weekends. A monthly pass costs $75.

Some buses stop in Carpinteria and others drive straight through to Santa Barbara. The express that leaves downtown Ventura at 6 a.m. can reach Santa Barbara in 30 minutes. But it can take three times as long to come back on bad traffic days, passengers said.

Highway 101 carries about 79,000 vehicles per day between Ventura and Santa Barbara, with nearly 6,000 vehicles on the road during peak driving hours, according to the California Department of Transportation.

An estimated 15,000 commuters travel from Ventura to Santa Barbara County on a daily basis, said Kent Epperson, director of traffic solutions for the Santa Barbara County Assn. of Governments.

"We have to make transit comfortable and time-competitive to get commuters out of their cars," Epperson said. "With traffic getting worse and gas prices getting higher, we're seeing more demand for this kind of service."

The Coastal Express operates on $650,000 a year, most of which is underwritten by federal transportation funds. Both counties split the remaining $150,000 in expenses.

Because of worsening traffic, Ventura and Santa Barbara county officials are exploring alternatives to ease congestion, including widening Highway 101, building a commuter rail line and operating a high-speed ferry that would transport passengers by sea.

Ventura Mayor Brian Brennan, a proponent of mass transit, said federal funding was available for alternative programs aimed at reducing congestion and improving air quality. But he acknowledged it was difficult to overcome Southern California's car culture.

Transit officials in San Diego County recently experimented with a commuter ferry to shuttle workers from Oceanside to San Diego. But people feared they would be stranded at the waterfront once they arrived in the city, he said.

"People will inconvenience themselves a little, but only so much," Brennan said. "We have to make it easier for them."

Some Coastal Express passengers say they enjoy the relaxation of riding the bus. And when they get to work, they are in a better frame of mind than they would be after driving in heavy traffic.

"I read a book and time passes by," said Elisa Rodriguez, 21, an office assistant for a cable manufacturing company in Goleta. "I don't even have a car. I'm happy."

For about a year, Josh Haggmark, 29, an engineer for the Santa Barbara city public works department, has been riding the Coastal Express with his friend, Devin Frisbie, 29, a quality assurance officer at the Goleta software firm where Wilmoth works.

"I think it's great, especially in the morning, when you're not constantly stopping in traffic," Haggmark said.

Michael Collie, 52, a surveyor for Santa Barbara County, said he drove to work for two years and he noticed he had to leave his Camarillo home earlier and earlier to get to work on time.

"At first I would leave at 5 a.m. but then it became 20 minutes to 5 for the same situation," he said.

"I like the bus, but I'm really down on freeways, because you're not getting very good value for the money you're investing. I'd much prefer some other kinds of public transportation."

Because there is no other kind right now, passengers said they were happy to ride the Coastal Express.

"I rode it once, and I've been riding it ever since," said Ivy Aanderand, 48, of Ventura who works at a Santa Barbara bank. "It's a no-brainer. Whether you drive or not, you're going to get there at the same time, so why drive?"

For details, call (800) 438-1112 or check out Ventura Inner City Service Transit Authority under By Bus on the Ventura County Transportation Commission website at www.goventura.org/home/index.asp.

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