The politics of rail
Efforts to boost commuter rail service between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties could face a steeper climb amid a renewed political focus on railway safety.
In the wake of a collision between a Ventura County-bound commuter train and freight train, which killed 25 and injured 135 passengers, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both California Democrats, introduced a bill that would require railroad operators to install automated crash-prevention systems.
The technology is in use in some Midwestern cities, but railroad companies have said it could cost billions to implement nationwide.
Although the push to create a commuter-friendly rail service between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties has found broad support, high costs have bogged it down. It would take an estimated $300 million to $500 million to turn the route, which is owned by Union Pacific, into a double-track line with a dedicated commuter train, said Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.
It’s too early to say how much additional safety measures might cost, but even a small figure could present another challenge for commuter rail to Santa Barbara.
“If [new costs for safety measures are] placed on the operators, that revenue has to come from somewhere, and that could potentially have an impact,” said Michael Powers, the deputy director of planning for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, which, along with Kettle’s group, commissioned a study on how to boost inter-county rail service. “It wouldn’t have as much of a local impact if a federal agency was going to pick up the cost.”
But transportation officials point to demand for broader Ventura-Santa Barbara rail options, demand they say likely will increase as fuel costs continue to rise.
“I don’t think the crash, as tragic as it is, takes away from the viability of existing rail service or new services,” Powers said. “Hopefully, the recommendations that come out of the investigation [into the crash] will make a system that’s even safer.”
So far, the most cost effective rail solution for a Ventura-Santa Barbara connection appears to be finding funds to reshape the schedule of the Amtrak train that already runs the route.
At present, the train doesn’t leave Ventura until after 9 a.m. and costs more than $15. Officials want to make both metrics more commuter friendly.
Riders don’t seem fazed by the recent accident.
On the first day back in service since the fatal crash, the Metrolink line serving east Ventura County reported rider levels at 80 percent of normal, Kettle said. Ventura County has also been making safety improvements of its own, Kettle said, setting aside $350,000 for intrusion detectors at rail-street crossings.
Officials point out that a commuter line is just one of several options under consideration to alleviate congestion along the Highway 101 corridor between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, which carries about 20,000 commuters each day, according to estimates from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Economic Forecast Project.
“We’re able to use the Coastal Express Vista bus for $4 a round trip,” Kettle said. “It’s not quite the appeal that the train is, but sometimes people are willing sacrifice a little appeal for their wallet.”
Transportation officials have also proposed adding an additional lane to Highway 101 for buses and commuters. If railway efforts get bogged down, a new lane could become more urgent.
“Say the latest events and politics and cost put the reality of rail system that could move masses of people further out into the future,” said Bill Buratto, chief executive of the Ventura County Economic Development Association. “The continued need to facilitate transportation will put more pressure on expanding [Highway] 101.
“Slowing down one means speeding up the other,” Buratto continued. “I think that’s a prudent and rational way to approach the problem.”
The Ventura-Santa Barbara congestion problem, Burratto said, isn’t going away.
“Finding a practical solution to moving large numbers or people up and down the coast will continue to be a major strategic initiative we’ll need find a solution to,” Buratto said.