A future train station for high-speed rail could pump more life and dollars into downtown Modesto, but might affect familiar traffic patterns and force out some businesses.
A likely option, for example, could prevent cars from passing under the city's historic "Water Wealth Contentment Health" arch. Another might bring an end to one-way flows on G and H streets.
It looks as though planners are trying to work around the 99-year-old St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, but bullet trains could whiz near its twin cupolas on elevated rails in a decade or two.
Companies at risk of moving if they're still around include Taco Bell, Smart & Final, Crescent Work & Outdoor and the venerable J.S. West & Cos. feed mill, among many others.
The trade-off would be electric trains carrying commuters to Bay Area jobs, or high-speed-rail cars linking Modesto to Sacramento and Southern California. Riders could reach Disneyland in a couple of hours, supporters say.
"We're planning for future generations," said Patrick Kelly, the city's planning manager. "It may seem like a long time, but it'll be here before you know it."
The push to pinpoint a future depot location is part of Modesto's strategy to get a leg up on Riverbank in the competition for a high-speed-train depot between Sacramento and Merced.
An initial $69 billion stretch of high-speed rail, from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Merced, stayed on track when state legislators preserved an $8 billion plan July 6. The Merced- Sacramento leg would come much later, probably after a compatible extension to Modesto of Altamont Commuter Express rails from existing stations in Lathrop or Stockton.
The north-south line would parallel existing tracks, either next to Union Pacific rails through Modesto, as city officials hope, or Burlington Northern Santa Fe rails east of town, preferred by Riverbank.
To bolster Modesto's pitch, the city is using a 2010 state transportation grant to craft a feasibility study for a downtown depot. Planners staged three public workshops, the last aimed at picking a likely spot consuming four blocks among eight in contention between G and K streets, from Seventh to Ninth streets.
More people seemed to like the central option, making use of the city's bus and taxi terminal while sparing St. Stanislaus Church and J.S. West. But it likely would mean routing traffic away from the city's beloved arch.
Some say that's better than sacrificing the efficiency of downtown's one-way flows on G and H streets straight-shot connections from Highway 99 to Scenic Drive and points east of downtown.
Planners aren't sure they've heard enough opinions and may hold another workshop.
"We most definitely want the public to come forth and bring us their concerns and comments," Kelly said.
Eric Benson, J.S. West president and chief executive officer, said his company's feed mill "has been the core of J.S. West for 103 years now," his great-grandfather having established a warehouse on H Street in 1909. The family previously ran a furniture store on one end that is now leased to Wellspring Anglican Church.
Change is inevitable
Despite that history, the company acknowledges that places and community needs do change, Benson said. The company has diversified over the decades in dozens of ventures, including egg production, propane, car dealerships and gas stations, and is not dependant on the downtown plant.
"We're open to alternatives for the long term," he said, "but we're currently very dedicated to our customers in the feed mill."
After 19 years in a small woodworking shop on Seventh Street, Jeremiah Williams is not anxious to move.
"I like being downtown and not out in the boonies somewhere," he said. "If they want to do it in (another) 19 years, I'm good."
Bill Austin, 70, who has operated Austin's Furniture on I Street for 37 years, doesn't have much faith the depot will materialize, partly because agencies on all levels are struggling for money.
"If you want something screwed up," he said, "get the government involved."
Former county Supervisor Nick Blom, a longtime St. Stanislaus parishioner, has seen two daughters married at the downtown church, built for $23,000 in 1913 to replace another established a block away in 1878.
A more modern Catholic church went up west of downtown a few years ago, and it holds all Sunday Masses with smaller weekday Masses remaining downtown. People can be nostalgic, Blom said, but a new economic heartbeat downtown could be more important.
"It's an old building," he said. "If I let sentiment rule my life, I would have been a lot different."
Input on site options can be submitted to email@example.com or (209) 577-5267. For more information, go to www.modestogov.com/ced/rail.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.