A new commuter train service running through Santa Barbara and Ventura County opened up on Mon., April 2, making public transit an increasingly viable option for commuters, UC Santa Barbara students, and faculty.
The train service is the result of over ten years of research and planning by the Traffic Solutions division of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, a regional planning agency responsible for distributing and administering transportation funds in SB County. The service is a part of Amtrak’s line of Pacific Surfliner trains, which travels through Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
“We’ve been looking forward to this day for many years,” said Gregg Hart, the Deputy Executive Director of SBCAG, during an interview with The Bottom Line. “It took a lot of fits and starts, but ultimately was successful.”
The Pacific Surfliner, which previously arrived at Goleta at 10:43 a.m., will now arrive at 7:16 a.m. The schedule shift is expected to accommodate more commuters living in Ventura, Oxnard, and Camarillo for which public transport was formerly inconvenient or untimely.
“There are about 15,000 people who live in Ventura County and commute to jobs in south Santa Barbara County each day,” Hart said. “That’s why the 101 freeway is so congested, and this is part of the solution.”
Among this group of early-morning commuters are UCSB students and staff. According to Jamey Wagner, the program manager of UCSB’s Transportation Alternatives Program, 500 UCSB students and employees from Ventura County either own parking permits, carpool, take the Coastal Express Bus, or use TAP’s Vanpool Program. Wagner expects the Pacific Surfliner’s new schedule to draw some of these UCSB-bound commuters toward public transit options instead.
In its first week of service, the Pacific Surfliner faced some difficulties keeping up with the new, early morning schedule. According to Wagner, maintenance problems and scheduling errors made the train over an hour late on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, and 10 minutes late on Wednesday. Wagner thinks that the train’s inconsistent scheduling and unreliability may drive commuters away from the public transportation option.
“Most people are very excited by the possibility of this working out,” said Wagner. “But for some people, there really is money and livelihood on the line if this is consistently off schedule.”
Still, Wagner expects many commuters to be drawn in by the train’s new and affordable ticket price. Previously, an unlimited monthly train pass from Ventura County to Goleta cost $450. Now, it’s only $150.
This $300 difference is thanks to a 2008 ballot measure called “Measure A,” which imposed a 0.5 percent sales tax in Santa Barbara County in 2010. According to the measure’s website, the sales tax will generate $1.05 billion over the next 30 years to fund transportation improvements like the recent commuter train project.
To encourage commuters to try out the new train service, SBCAG is offering free, 10-day passes through the month of April. According to Hart, over 1,200 people have requested these passes so far.
Hart attributes this surge in popularity to the train’s earlier schedule times and the recent effects of the Montecito Mudslides, which devastated Highway 101 last January and forced commuters to look to new transit options, like public commuter trains.
“The trains were operating while [Highway 101] was closed,” Hart said. “So I think as many as 5,000 people on a single day used the train to get up to Santa Barbara.”
Hart believes that the experience piqued commuters’ interest in public transit. “I think they opened their eyes to the possibility of [using a commuter rail] on a more regular basis. They realized this could be a really important change that would improve their commute and make their lives better.”
SBCAG will continue to work in the coming months to increase ridership and ensure that the new commuter service runs smoothly and on time.
This article has been updated to include additional information.