Monday, May 23, 2011

All Aboard For East Ventura

The other day, I boarded Metrolink Train 119 to return home from Downtown Los Angeles. The train was bound for a place called “East Ventura”.

Ever since Metrolink first came to Ventura a decade ago, the trains have stopped at a station in the Montalvo neighborhood, off of Victoria Avenue just north of Highway 101. This isn’t necessarily the best location in town for a Metrolink station. though it is an easy drive for 50,000 residents who live east of Victoria. But the truth of the matter is that the Montalvo rail siding was where the trains were stored overnight after they finished their run in Oxnard. So it made sense to take place where they were stored and turn it into a formal station. It’s also the starting point for a possible rail line through Santa Paula and Fillmore all the way to Santa Clarita.

The station has always been called “Montalvo”. Montalvo is a venerated neighborhood in Ventura; some of it is inside the Ventura city limits and some is not. I’ve spent a lot of time in Montalvo over the years. I’ve thrown out the first pitch in the Montalvo Little League two years in a row, and I’ve had lots of friends who live in Ventura and/or teach at Montalvo Elementary School.

So, while Montalvo is a very important neighborhood, the name really doesn’t convey a true sense of where the Ventura County Metrolink line goes. When you’re standing at Union Station in Downtown L.A. looking at the board, you see the names of the bigger cities that define Southern California: Riverside, San Bernardino, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Burbank, Glendale, Santa Clarita, Oxnard. You can take an Amtrak train to Ventura (the stop is at the Fairgrounds) but traditionally there was no way to decipher that if you got on the Montalvo train you were going anywhere near Ventura. Unless you knew where Montalvo was.

A couple of months ago, in my capacity as Chair of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, I asked Metrolink to change the name of the station from “Montalvo” to “East Ventura”. That way, riders in Downtown L.A. know that they’re going to Ventura – but they also know they are not going to the “Ventura” stop on Amtrak, which of course is in a different location. Metrolink made this earlier this month. Right now, to avoid confusion, the boards at Union Station say: “East Ventura/Montalvo”.

Things still aren’t perfect, of course. Ventura is still the only City in the entire Metrolink system – 130 stops – where Amtrak and Metrolink stop in different places. I’d love to see Metrolink come downtown to the Fairgrounds, but there are quite a number of logistical difficulties. For one thing, the East Ventura stop is essentially on different rail line, so Metrolink can’t just start at the Fairgrounds, stop at East Ventura, and move on to Oxnard. In addition, the rail line is single track throughout Ventura, meaning Metrolink would have to get to the Fairgrounds and back without running into conflicts with Amtrak or freight trains run by Union Pacific (which owns the tracks).

Still, I’m hopeful. The City is just starting on a new phase of our study looking at the possibility of capping the 101 Freeway at California (the study is being paid for by the Southern California Association of Governments). We’re hopeful that if the freeway were ever capped, we could create double-tracking or a siding that would form the basis for a multi-modal transit center, where trains and buses come together in one location.

For now, I’ll take whatever small victories I can get. And taking the train to East Ventura is definitely a win.

Working Together With Our Neighborhoods

Back in the early ‘90s, a group of citizens in the neighborhood then known simply as “The Avenue” got together and decided that their neighborhood had not gotten enough attention over the years. So they formed a neighborhood organization to advocate for their community. They even gave their neighborhood a new name – the Westside – because they believed “The Avenue” had developed too many negative connotations over the years.

Almost 20 years later, the Westside Community Council is still going strong in advocating for the Westside – and over the years City Hall has responded. Most recently, we have been working on a Community Plan for the Westside area that will – after some 15 years of uncertainly – make the rules clear for new development and also identify the priorities for public investment on the Westside (if and when we have the money to make those investments).

And there are six other community councils in Ventura as well – representing Downtown, Midtown, Pierpont, the Harbor, the College District, and East Ventura. These are truly grassroots organizations.

We have great neighborhoods in Ventura, but they’ve taken a beating as we have had to reduce services in the last few years. The Community Councils help to foster neighborhood pride and engage in grassroots activity to make these neighborhoods better. I’m proud to do whatever I can to support our Community Councils and make our neighborhoods better. I meet every couple of months with the chairs of these Councils, and we are planning Ventura’s first-ever Neighborhood Summit this summer.

With the exception of the Downtown Ventura organization – created with the City’s help – these groups were formed by the people who live and work in their neighborhoods and they have crafted their own role.

For example, the Midtown Ventura Community Council often reviews and comments on pending development projects in Midtown, and it was partly because of the Community Council that Community Memorial Hospital’s large expansion project is so neighborhood-oriented and passed with so much neighborhood support.

The Pierpont Community Council has been at the forefront of the thorny sand removal issues that affect the Pierpont, and the College District Community Council was formed in response to many changes in the neighborhood, including spreading homeless issues and the loss of Wright Library. The College District organization has become an important venue for dialogue between Ventura College and surrounding neighborhoods.

None of these organizations receive a penny from the City. We do try to help them as much as possible. For example, Police Department staff often attends Community Council meetings – a vital information exchange about crime and safety issues in the neighborhoods that helps neighbors know how to stay safe and helps the police learn what problems are occurring. Our transportation engineers, parks staff, and other folks often attend the meetings as well to provide information and also stay on top of neighborhood issues.

And our Community Partnerships staff is working with the Community Councils to find private, philanthropic support for what we are calling a Neighborhood Improvements Matching Grant program. This program would allow for the City's various Community Councils to apply for matching grants to fund improvement projects in their districts. This would be a huge step forward in helping our neighborhoods help themselves to become better – and protect the neighborhoods that everyone in town loves.