To protect LOSSAN rail corridor, we need to act fast and think big

By Sen. Catherine Blakespear

There it was — the headline flashing across phones and computer screens — the San Clemente hillside below Casa Romantica was giving way, and the rail tracks below were in danger. Train operations ceased “for the foreseeable future.”

Less than two weeks after being fully reopened to limited passenger rail traffic, the line had to be shut down again on April 27, with rail riders being forced to take a bus bridge adding inconvenience and time to what should have been a lovely nonstop train ride.

Sadly, for those paying attention, it was hardly a surprise. The rail line’s vulnerabilities have become increasingly clear in recent years as erosion and climate change have jeopardized the track’s security and stability. Nearly every portion of the line — from northern Santa Barbara County to San Diego County — has experienced operational issues due to weather-related events that are projected to worsen in years ahead.

The LOSSAN corridor, which stands for Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo, serves six counties with a population of 20 million and is vital to the movement of freight and passengers through the region. The line is the second busiest intercity passenger rail corridor in the United States.

But as important as it is now, LOSSAN stands to be even more important in coming decades, as the state seeks to reduce carbon emissions, improve mobility through increasingly dense regions and reduce reliance on cars and freeways.

That’s why the state Senate has created a subcommittee — the Transportation Subcommittee on LOSSAN Rail Corridor Resiliency — to tackle the issue. Much thanks to Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Transportation Committee Chair Lena Gonzalez for recognizing the significance of this matter and establishing this subcommittee.

On Tuesday, we will hold our first hearing and begin a high-level assessment of the rail line’s value and long-term needs. Frankly, it’s long overdue.

Local and regional government agencies, such as SANDAG and the Orange County Transportation Authority, have been working hard on the issue for years, but what we need now is a state-level perspective that evaluates the entire LOSSAN line and our vision for it, working in partnership with both the federal government and local agencies.

Looking across the globe, we see that other modern nations — in Europe, in Asia — have made rail the centerpiece of highly efficient transportation networks. Even in this country, the Northeast rail corridor is essential for commuters and movement among the East Coast’s largest cities.

There is no shortage of great examples of what the LOSSAN rail corridor could become. Here’s what I aim to accomplish. First, work to identify the regional, state and national benefits of this line.

Second, look holistically at how we’re supporting the corridor and work to optimize state and federal investments. Third, evaluate the corridor’s needs and create a framework for prioritizing projects, so we all work together on a smart plan that benefits everybody instead of competing against each other for investments in particular segments.

I have traveled abroad and seen the potential of what rail can be. We deserve, and can have, a truly competitive, reliable and resilient rail option that our region can use for generations.

As Southern California confronts its many challenges, investing in rail makes more sense now than ever. It’s time to move beyond the month-to-month crisis of reacting to the latest eroding hillside or flood, and plan more thoughtfully for the rail corridor’s future success.

Catherine Blakespear is a state senator and chair of the Senate Transportation Subcommittee on LOSSAN Rail Corridor Resiliency.