By DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer
North County Times
May 30, 2008
SAN DIEGO ---- With gas costing $4 a gallon driving record numbers of people onto the train, it is time to introduce express service on the nation's second-busiest passenger rail line and to accelerate laying a second track along the Southern California coast, officials said Thursday.
The mayor of a North County city, San Diego city officials and the head of a regional planning agency used a rare San Diego meeting of the California Transportation Commission to propose a two-hour, limited-stop trip between the state's two largest cities and to lobby commissioners for political and financial support.
However, the regional leaders received a cool reception from the 11-member board at a meeting at a hotel near Lindbergh Field.
The commission is a powerful appointed body that decides how to spend billions of dollars collected through gasoline taxes and the big transportation bond California voters approved in 2006. The board usually meets in Sacramento, but occasionally meets at other locations around the state.
San Diego Councilman Jim Madaffer said the idea is to run two or three trains between San Diego and Los Angeles daily, with stops only in Oceanside and Anaheim, and possibly one other city.
Madaffer said the goal would be to substantially shorten the typical Amtrak trip between the cities that now takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes, making the train attractive to commuters and business travelers who now prefer driving.
Phil Rath, policy adviser for San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, said, "We're going to need to invest in this system to make it competitive with the automobile."
The local officials broached the idea of an express train as a report was being delivered to the state board on California's three state-subsidized Amtrak passenger rail lines, including the Pacific Surfliner that runs between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo.
According to the report, the number of riders on the Surfliner, the second-busiest Amtrak corridor after one in the Northeast, totaled 656,439 during the first three months of the year. That's an increase of 9.5 percent from 599,412 in the first quarter of 2007.
As a result of increasing ridership, fare revenues covered 51 percent of Surfliner costs, up from just under half a year earlier. State and federal tax dollars cover the remaining costs.
While impressed by the numbers, several commissioners were cool to the idea of boosting state support for the corridor at a time when Sacramento is wrestling with a severely strained budget.
"What are you doing here?" asked Commissioner Kirk Lindsey of Riverbank. "We're broke."
Commissioner Jim Ghielmetti of Pleasanton suggested that San Diego County officials consider launching a grass-roots statewide initiative to boost funding for trains.
After the meeting, Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, a planning agency, said it would be difficult to pursue an initiative in the current political climate.
While state support may be a hard sell in the short term, William Bronte, chief of the California Department of Transportation's Rail Division, said after the meeting the region may be able to count on federal dollars after a new president is elected.
Bronte said his agency will examine the potential for express service.
Commission Chairman John Chalker of San Diego, a backer of express service, said a large infusion of cash may not be required to launch a limited-stop run on the coast. Instead, Chalker said, two or three of the 11 trains that run between San Diego and Los Angeles could be converted to express trains.
An Orange County official signaled that might not fly with politicians to the north.
Jennifer Bergener, programming manager for the Orange County Transportation Authority, said her agency is open to exploring adding trains, but not to converting existing ones to express service.
"There's standing room only on these trains," Bergener said.
Chalker countered that affected Orange County residents could take a Metrolink train instead. Metrolink is a Los Angeles-based agency that operates a six-county network of long-distance commuter trains that transports people to jobs in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Metrolink trains run on the same tracks.
With the swelling ridership, hundreds of people are standing on many Amtrak trains ---- and some are even left standing on the platform when the trains leave the station because they are so full, Madaffer said.
"Record numbers of riders are using our rail services, and especially recently, as a result of the rising price of gas," said Solana Beach Mayor Joe Kellejian, who serves on the board of the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency (LOSSAN) board.
With the number of passenger and freight trains in the corridor projected to double from 50 to about 100 by 2025, Madaffer said it is crucial that the rail line's capacity be increased.
Chalker said 40 percent of the line in San Diego County has just one track.
"That creates a lot of problems when you're running the Coaster, Amtrak and freight trains, and you even have the Metrolink coming down to Oceanside," he said.
Regional leaders praised the commission for funding the replacement of a single-track bridge over the Santa Margarita River on Camp Pendleton, a project that could get under way by the end of the year. The new bridge will have two tracks.
But Chalker said that at the current rate of progress, the region's ongoing efforts to construct a second track won't be finished until 2030.
That's not good enough ---- it needs to be completed in half that time, he said.
Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (760) 745-6611, Ext. 2623, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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