Ventura County transportation officials admit that they lack funds to operate commuter rail service between Ventura and Los Angeles counties, but they insist that the plan is still on track.
The county is expected to get $31 million in Proposition 116 funds to establish commuter service. But that money is earmarked to help pay for rail rights of way, passenger cars and maintenance facilities.
The problem is coming up with the estimated $500,000 needed annually to operate the service between Los Angeles and Simi Valley and Moorpark by the proposed start-up time of late 1992.
“We’ve got two years to get the funding together” for operations, said Ginger Gherardi, director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission. “We feel confident we will get it.”
The overwhelming defeat last month of a ballot measure that would have raised the local sales tax half a cent to pay for $500 million in transportation projects over the next 20 years has put a crimp in funding for the planned commuter rail service. Some of the money collected through the measure would have been used to pay the operating costs of the service.
Gherardi and her staff recommended to the Ventura County Transportation Commission last week that it begin working to place the half-cent sales tax measure back on the ballot in November. The commission, however, decided to study the proposal another month before deciding whether to go ahead with a ballot-measure campaign.
If the commission decides to support placing the measure on the ballot again, Gherardi and other officials admit that its success will depend on the economy. Gherardi said it is important that county officials begin working on a ballot measure even if they decide later not to pursue it.
If the effort fails, the cities of Moorpark and Simi Valley would have to come up with the operating funds, something city officials said will be difficult given their own belt-tightening measures.
“That’s an awful lot of commitment,” Simi Valley Mayor Greg Stratton said. “It will be very difficult to justify $500,000 on an annual basis to support 100, 200 or 300 people using the service. We would have to take a serious look at that before we sign up for that kind of commitment.”
If the annual operating costs of the commuter service could be scaled down to about $100,000 to $200,000, it would be easier to fund, Stratton said.
Assistant City Manager Mike Sedell said Simi Valley still has two years to explore other funding options, but that it is too early to say what some of the options might be.
Moorpark officials are taking a similar stance.
“We haven’t given up the ship,” said Susan Cauldwell, assistant to City Manager Steven Kueny. Although the city cannot commit any of its general funds to the operating costs of the commuter service, Cauldwell said, it would try to find a way to come up with its share.
“We’re going to explore every opportunity available,” she said. “We’re not well-off financially, but to say that commuter service is not coming to Moorpark is a little premature.”
Moorpark Mayor Paul Lawrason said his city cannot afford to be excluded from the commuter service. “It’s something that we need to do. It’s almost mandatory,” he said. “We have a lot of commuters who live in our city.”
Ironically, Simi Valley, Moorpark and Oxnard were included in a short-lived commuter rail service linking Ventura and Los Angeles counties in late 1982. The service was discontinued after five months because of unreliable service and financial problems.
But Ventura County officials stress that the problem was not ridership. They said ridership on the old commuter trains rivaled the large number of Ventura County passengers who use Amtrak’s popular and recently expanded Santa Barbara to San Diego line.
Since the San Diegan began serving Ventura County in 1988, the number of passengers boarding the train in Simi Valley has grown from 10,629 to 22,606, said Amtrak spokesman Arthur Lloyd. The number of passengers boarding at the San Diegan’s stop in Oxnard has gone from 23,463 in 1988 to 50,009 this year, Lloyd said.
There are also plans to add a stop in Ventura.
Dave Valeska, transportation project manager for Ventura, said the city is set to begin construction in the spring on a platform station on Harbor Boulevard, just west of Figueroa Street. Once the station is built, the city will be added to the line, officials said.
Lloyd said San Diegan service could begin in Ventura within 60 days of the completion of the platform station.
Still, Ventura and Oxnard officials said they are interested in being included in the commuter rail service that county officials want to begin running by late 1992.
Valeska said about $2 million in track improvements is needed between Ventura and Oxnard before the city is ready for any new service. He said that would be a small price to pay compared to the amount that would be needed to add to, or build, a freeway.
“Realistically, we are going to have to beef up our rail service because we can’t afford to build a second freeway,” Valeska said. The Ventura Freeway is the only large freeway that traverses the county.
“Rail development is the only affordable way to handle the capacity of traffic going to Los Angeles,” he said.
Bob Weithofer, Oxnard’s traffic and transportation manager, said his city also would like to have more rail service. He said Oxnard already has facilities to handle such service.
“We have the very best station in the county, and we have adequate parking for start-up,” he said.
Gherardi agrees that commuter rail should one day extend to Oxnard and Ventura. But, for now, the emphasis is on the east county.
Even if another sales-tax measure fails, Gherardi said, transportation officials still have two years to come up with operating funds.
“I think it’s critical for the county to have commuter service,” she said. “I don’t think the price of gas is going to go down a lot. Growth will continue to take place and air pollution will not get any better. We have to do this.”