CA: Could increased state intervention improve local rail service?

Jan. 30, 2024
Is California's decentralized approach to transportation preventing local rail service from reaching its full potential?

Jan. 28—Is California's decentralized approach to transportation preventing local rail service from reaching its full potential?

That's what several state legislators are suggesting as they ask for increased state leadership in managing the Los Angeles — San Luis Obispo — San Diego rail corridor.

The forecast of the 351-mile rail corridor, stretching from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, is dismal, the legislators said in a letter to the California State Transportation Agency earlier this month. While it once completed more than 8.3 million passenger trips at its peak in 2019, it is now making fewer than 4 million trips annually, they said.

"The corridor cannot provide the level of service needed to attract and retain ridership while facing prolonged track closures, unreliable service, infrequent trains and poor rider experience," said the letter, signed by seven state senators, including Sen. Catherine Blakespear, D- Encinitas. "The time is now for increased state leadership."

Track closures in San Clemente due to landslides have been a recurring theme in that vulnerable region, where the train runs along the coast. On Jan. 24, another landslide sent debris onto the railroad tracks, shutting down the rail line for about a 34-mile stretch indefinitely.

Metrolink, the commuter rail service managed by the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, is unable to secure enough shuttles or buses to shuttle commuters between Orange County and Oceanside while the trains are halted, said spokesperson Scott Johnson.

"Neither private nor public bus agencies in the region have a surplus of operators and equipment to provide the minimum 20 buses and up to 40 operators that would be needed to provide alternate transportation for train service between 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. with less than 12 hours notice," Johnson said.

There have been several landslides in the area in the past year, including ones at the south end of San Clemente that caused the rail line to be closed for months. Last year, daily commuter rail service between south Orange County and San Diego was halted for several months.

It's "unacceptable to have repeated infrastructure problems in the same section of the corridor again and again and not urgently plan a long-term solution," said Blakespear, who helms the Senate Subcommittee on LOSSAN Rail Corridor Resiliency.

The way the corridor is governed must be addressed, Blakespear said. Nearly a dozen organizations have a stake in the LOSSAN corridor, including railroad owners, transit agencies, planning agencies and freight operators — each highly unique to the region they represent.

And what you end up with is a complex web that is hard to understand, she said.

"When you think of it as an ecosystem, it's one line. But then you have all these transit agencies that feed into that line in order for people to get onto the train," Blakespear said. "Because of the fact that it is decentralized, or you could say that it's centered in a more local control, it means that there are a lot of different missions and focuses."

Stakeholders weigh in

Until about a decade ago, the LOSSAN corridor was managed by the California Department of Transportation. Then in 2013, the Orange County Transportation Authority was chosen to oversee intercity passenger rail service. In 2015, officials in Sacramento and locally transferred the management of the Pacific Surfliner Amtrak rail service from Caltrans to the LOSSAN Agency, a joint powers authority governed by an 11-member board.

"Pacific Surfliner is a passenger rail service that is operated by LOSSAN. And then to add to the bureaucracy, the LOSSAN Agency is managed by the OCTA," Johnson said. "Now the question is whether or not that's the ideal way to manage the LOSSAN corridor."

Still, despite the complexities of the current governance structure, Johnson said Metrolink has a great working relationship with all of the LOSSAN corridor's stakeholders. He did not say whether an enlarged state intervention would be welcome to Metrolink.

Other organizations, including OCTA, said state leadership is necessary in determining a long-term vision for the corridor.

"An effort to successfully bring together the proper stakeholders — including local, state and federal agencies — as well as an effort to prioritize large capital projects and to fund what we know will be projects costing billions of dollars should be led by the state of California," said spokesperson Eric Carpenter.

For the San Diego Association of Governments, one of the corridor's two large metropolitan planning organizations, the railway is "key for passenger travel, the movement of goods to and from the port of San Diego and for the military," said SANDAG CEO Coleen Clementson.

"It's challenging to bring together all the stakeholders for the LOSSAN Agency," she said. And that's where she hopes the state will come in to help. With multiple stakeholders at the table, there will always be competition in determining priorities and where funding is focused first, she said.

Clementson said she appreciates heightened efforts by state leaders to bring the stakeholders together, including by reconvening the LOSSAN Regional Rail Corridor Working Group, she said.

The group, which held its second meeting this month, will "support corridor-wide coordination to identify and quickly respond to emerging issues and opportunities to improve service," said CalSTA spokesperson Marty Greenstein.

"Our job is to come together and develop a strategic plan," Clementson said. "What are all the improvements that need to be done in the corridor, and then how do we prioritize the improvements that need to be made, and then how do we get funding and actually get the funding to make those improvements? I think having the state involved in supporting our work effort is incredibly helpful."

The Southern California Association of Governments, the other metropolitan planning organization, declined to comment.

Jason Jewell, who oversees the LOSSAN Agency as its managing director, said while local control has been effective over the years, a stronger partnership between the stakeholders could be developed through the Federal Railroad Administration's Corridor ID Program that the LOSSAN corridor was selected for, providing Caltrans with a $500,000 grant for planning and development of long-term improvements to the corridor.

"One of the main goals of the program is to establish an inventory of projects so that they can work with the corridors to establish how those projects would be prioritized and funded over the long term," Jewell said. "I think it's a really good opportunity for the stakeholders, including the state and the LOSSAN Agency to work together to prioritize these capital programs and resiliency projects that are needed across the corridor."

The goal of increased state leadership in managing LOSSAN is not an ask for full state control, Blakespear said. But she believes there isn't as much expectation from the state about what locals will do or prioritize, she said.

"The state needs to align the expectations, funding and deliverables so that the investments we're making into the rail corridor are optimized to keep the line functioning and actually growing ridership," she said.

Mandating increased state leadership could come in the form of legislation, Blakespear said — and she may introduce a bill this year, she said.

Noting the budget deficit — the state faces a projected deficit of $37.9 billion this year, posing a large question mark for any projects or legislative proposals that include a pricetag — Blakespear said the legislators' request isn't a fiscal one.

"This is about governance and organization and the process for figuring out what to do," she said. "What I want is for everybody to come to a consensus about what's needed and to recognize whatever structural changes might need to happen."

Staff writer Laylan Connelly contributed to this report.

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