Ventura County government officials are preparing to implement a commuter rail system from Oxnard to Santa Barbara within the next decade, Ventura City Manager Rick Cole told the Reporter Nov. 2.

Initially the plan calls for using existing Amtrak trains and Union Pacific rail lines by upgrading infrastructure to insure prompt morning and evening drop offs to serve the more than 15,000 people who commute between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties during the workweek.

In conjunction with Ventura’s 2005 General Plan, city officials are also set to begin an 18-month Mobility Plan to assess the best alternative transportation routes to take.

Eventually some local legislators, including 2nd District County Supervisor Linda Parks, hope to build a new light rail network throughout Ventura County, running down the middle of Highway 101, similar to Los Angeles and Orange counties’ Metrolink.

“If we can get a man on the moon we can get a bus system up and down the (Conejo) Grade to connect the east and west counties,” Parks said. “I really would like to see better transit systems within cities or between cities. We need to take that first step.”

The first step toward solving Ventura and neighboring counties’ transportation woes may not be commuter rail. Construction is already scheduled to begin in 2011 for a $151 million project to widen Highway 101 from Mussel Shoals to the Santa Barbara County line, an area plagued with stop-and-go traffic during peak commuting hours.

“A lane and a train” is the catch line for the plan heralded by the Santa Barbara City Council Rail Committee and dubbed On-TRAC, Transit/Rail Action for Commuters.

The plan comes at a time when local governments are struggling to weigh environmental-responsibility against commuter convenience and cost.

On-TRAC promoters say they do not yet have an estimate on the cost of implementing a rail system, but it will likely be in the millions.

“The issue that the Ventura County Transportation Commission has now is the cost of upgrading the tracks as well as the cost of operating the system,” Cole said. “The cost is very significant.”

Unlike Santa Barbara and other neighboring counties, Ventura doesn’t have a transportation sales tax to help subsidize a potential rail project.

In 2004 voters rejected a transportation tax initiative, with only 42 percent casting ballots in favor of the tax that required a two-thirds majority to pass.

Officials are hopeful that the county may be able to pass a similar initiative on an upcoming ballot, Cole said.

“All the options are on the table,” he said. “We have a fresh start. And there’s a high level of interest from Ventura in commuter rail.”

As housing prices have escalated in Ventura, more people have opted to live further south and commute north, clogging Highway 101 between Oxnard and Ventura.

“Although we’re only connected by a single bridge, many people shop, eat and go to cultural activities across the river (in Oxnard) and vice versa,” Cole said.

Cole, however, doesn’t agree with Santa Barbara’s conclusion that a new lane is the solution to the Highway 101 crunch.

“The reality is it doesn’t do an enormous amount of good to widen it in some places and not others.”

He thinks some of the money spent on freeway construction should be channeled into alternative transportation solutions.

“I think the primary challenge (for commuter rail) is one of mindset, not of finances, because widening the freeway is not cheap either,” Cole said. “With the rising price of gas and the impact on our environment, investing in sustainability is going to be cheaper in the long run.”

While Ventura Mayor Carl Morehouse says he’s “very, very supportive” of light rail, he thinks the mass commuter migration northward reveals weak spots in the Ventura County economy.

“It’s about jobs, housing and balance,” Morehouse said. “Some of those people going up there for jobs, it’d be nice to have them here for jobs. So there are some issues or hurdles to be overcome.

“There are some in our community who do not wish to continue being a bedroom community for Santa Barbara,” Morehouse continued.

In conjunction with the revitalization of downtown Ventura officials plan to create an easy access alternative transportation network, by covering Highway 101 and building Amtrak, Metrolink and bus stations on California Street within the next five years, Cole said.

“That’s our goal and we’re very serious about pursuing it,” he said. “The freeway goes right through the heart of Ventura’s historic downtown and cuts us off from the beach.”

Parks said she hopes to have a countywide symposium on transportation at Seaside Park in the coming months, so the public can provide input for potential projects.

Regardless of the type of commuter rail system, implementing it will be an uphill battle, Morehouse said.

“The bottom line is I’m an enthusiastic and I’m a realist,” he said. “Nothing happens overnight. We need to have a continuing dialogue to work on this and figure out something that will work for all us. We need to have a long-range plan.”

Cole also stressed collaboration, but added that some changes need to be made soon.

“The short-term alternative that everyone is excited about is improving Amtrak service to make it more convenient for commuters,” Cole said, “but we also need to improve the bus service because it’s overcrowded. It’s standing room only most days.”

On one such day earlier this month, May Speer, sat waiting for the bus on a Main Street bench.

“It’s pretty crowded. I just hope that I can get a seat,” the 76-year-old Speer said. “But it is convenient, most of

the time. Most of the time it goes

pretty well.”