MODESTO — A future train station for high-speed rail in downtown Modesto could within a decade include commuter trains that take workers to their jobs in the Bay Area.
Bringing Altamont Commuter Express trains to Modesto is among the details in a $100,000 feasibility study that the City Council's Economic Development Committee approved Monday.
Although there have been proposals to extend ACE to Stanislaus County since the commuter service started in 1998, commuters here still drive or take the bus to the Lathrop-Manteca ACE station to catch a train.
ACE Executive Director Stacey Mortensen said Tuesday that the current proposal has the best chance of becoming a reality, in large part because of the state's effort to build 800 miles of rail for high-speed trains, linking the Bay Area with Southern California via Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley. Construction on the project's first phase, south of Merced, could start this year.
In its revised 2012 business plan, the California High-Speed Rail Authority stated that it wants to integrate its high-speed rail with existing rail systems such as ACE. Mortensen said that while it could be 40 years before high-speed rail comes to Modesto, ACE could extend service to Modesto by 2022.
"ACE is really our only option" in the short term, Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors Chairman Vito Chiesa said Tuesday. "We really need to start pushing."
Chiesa also serves as chairman of the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee, which advises Caltrans on Amtrak service in the valley. He said he will advocate bringing ACE to Modesto and then to Turlock and Merced. Mortensen said plans are being developed to extend ACE service south of Modesto.
Mortensen said ACE's board of directors has made serving Modesto one of its top priorities. She plans to ask the San Joaquin and Stanislaus councils of governments, which deal with transportation issues, to do the same.
ACE serves about 3,700 commuters a day. It has stations in Stockton, Lathrop-Manteca and Tracy, as well as Livermore, Pleasanton and San Jose. Mortensen said 350 to 500 of its commuters are from south of Lathrop, primarily Stanislaus County. She said extending ACE service to Modesto could triple that ridership.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority tracks would parallel existing tracks, either next to the Union Pacific rails through Modesto, as city officials hope, or the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks east of Modesto.
Build tracks or use UP?
Mortensen expects the high-speed rail will parallel UP tracks, which, unlike the BNSF tracks, are along population centers. ACE trains would use the high-speed rails. But as an interim measure, Mortensen said, ACE would build its own line parallel to the UP line. That could cost $170 million, according to a conceptional estimate.
She said Union Pacific is reluctant to let ACE use its rails for the Modesto expansion because the high volume of freight shipped on those rails makes it difficult to add commuter trains.
The feasibility study identified three locations for the train station, all of which incorporate Modesto's Ninth Street Transportation Center, which is a hub for bus service.
The cost of acquiring the land for the station is $2.6 million to $10.2 million, depending on the location. The study estimates the cost of acquiring the land for a 150-foot-wide corridor for high-speed trains at $160 million.
At Monday's meeting, Modesto officials stressed the feasibility study is just that. "This is a study," Planning Manager Patrick Kelly said. "It's not a project, it's not a plan. It's just a study."
City officials reiterated that point when an audience member asked about the train station's impact on nearby St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, whose land is not part of three proposed station locations.
Officials said if the City Council were to move forward with a train station, that would entail a raft of detailed studies examining such issues as noise and traffic. The city would have to gain support and funding for the project.
City officials say a train station could be a boon for the downtown and region. It could serve as a catalyst for economic development. Chiesa added that rail service would reduce the number of cars on congested and battered roads and help reduce air pollution.
The California Department of Transportation provided Modesto with a $100,000 grant for the study. The Economic Development Committee voted 2-1 to accept the study, with council members Stephanie Burnside and John Gunderson voting "yes."
Councilman Dave Geer voted "no." He opposes the state's high-speed rail project because he believes it will cost too much and will not have enough riders.
The study goes to the City Council on Feb. 12 for acceptance. But nothing will happen unless the council directs staff to take further action.
To see the study, go to www.modestogov.com/ced/rail and click on the link for Draft Final Downtown Passenger Rail Station Feasibility Study.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.