CalTrain Fate Rides on ICC Ruling

Times Staff Writer

The federal Interstate Commerce Commission is expected to hand down a decision this week that could either sound the death knell for CalTrain, the commuter rail service that once ran from Oxnard to Los Angeles, or open negotiations that could lead to resumption of service.

CalTrain operated for 4 1/2 months, ending in early 1983 when the state and the Southern Pacific Railroad could not agree on how much the railroad should be paid for providing the commuter service.

Affirms PUC Authority

But an ICC ruling in December affirmed the authority of the state Public Utilities Commission to order Southern Pacific to operate the service. The decision also allowed the commission to set a subsidy rate that the state would pay Southern Pacific for using the company's tracks and equipment to give the railroad a "reasonable" rate of return.

The railroad has opposed use of CalTrain on its single line because it would interfere with freight and Amtrak operations.

The ICC will rule on a longstanding request by Southern Pacific to set a tariff on the commuter service. The tariff is a charge the railroad sets for moving freight--or, in CalTrain's case, commuters--from one point to another. State Transportation Department officials said that if the ICC decides a tariff can be established by the railroad, CalTrain almost surely will not resume service. Officials point to Southern Pacific's insistence that the tariff should be $588,000 a month, much more than the state and local governments are willing to pay.

"If it's $588,000, then everybody is going to walk away," said Warren Weber, chief of the Transportation Department's rail services office.

Edward Connor, a Transportation Department attorney, said that it would be almost impossible for commuter fares to cover 40% of CalTrain's costs, as required by state law, if the tariff were set at $588,000 a month. Weber said fare receipts and state and local government financing could probably fund a monthly tariff of $100,000.

State transportation officials, however, say they are confident that the federal regulatory body will not allow Southern Pacific to set a tariff because it has already decided the PUC can set a subsidy rate that will cover the railroad's costs and also provide a profit.

"The two concepts, subsidies and tariffs, are inherently inconsistent," said Connor.

Issue Complicated

But an ICC decision disallowing a tariff would not automatically mean a resumption of CalTrain. Complications involving financial commitments from the state and local governments along the CalTrain route cloud the issue.

Since CalTrain ended its operations, the Transportation Department has demanded that, for the service to be resumed, local governments must pay 50% of the costs of CalTrain's past and future operations that are not covered by fare receipts. The state would provide the remaining 50% of the costs not covered by fares.

The Public Utilities Commission would be responsible for determining the total amount Southern Pacific would be paid, but the PUC will not hold hearings on the issue until it receives financial commitments from local and state governments, said Victor Weisser, director of the PUC's transportation division.

However, local governments, although interested in the resumption of CalTrain, are not enthusiastic about committing themselves to pay a share of CalTrain's past or future costs until the total amount of those costs has been determined by the PUC.

"It's definitely a Catch-22," said Andy Lazzaretto, Burbank city manager. "That's definitely how we felt when we were discussing it."

In addition, local governments along the CalTrain route, such as Simi Valley, Moorpark, Burbank and the City and County of Los Angeles, must decide what percentage of the total local government share each will pay.

'Intergovernmental Dance'

The agencies involved in the wrangling "are doing a type of intergovernmental dance," said Mike Sedell, assistant city manager of Simi Valley. "Keeping in mind that this is taxpayer moneys, the agencies involved are all being extremely cautious in moving forward with a commitment to an amount they don't know."

Sedell said he is organizing a meeting next month of representatives of local governments served by CalTrain. The goal would be to determine if there is interest in resuming CalTrain and how the local governments could fund their shares.

Simi Valley has been the most interested in resuming CalTrain primarily because when the service operated, about 50% of its riders lived in Simi Valley, Sedell said.

A resumption of the service would provide an alternative to many commuters; 70% of Simi Valley's work force is employed in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles, Sedell said.

Before resuming service, the Department of Transportation would have to determine that ridership will be substantially above 1983 levels. The Department of Transportation had estimated a daily ridership of 2,000 a day after a year of operation, with two trains running each day. But after four months and little publicity, only 300 riders a day were reported using the service.

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