MODESTO — Hop aboard in downtown Modesto, kick back in comfort for two hours and arrive in the Silicon Valley in time for work.
It might not be a high-speed train, but it could be reality in five years. The Altamont Corridor Express — ACE commuter trains — wants to expand service to Modesto, Turlock and Merced.
ACE is trying to fast-track those plans, and it has lined up tax dollars to study its options and prepare the necessary environmental reports. A meeting to explain the proposal and hear concerns will be held July 24 in Modesto.
If all goes well, daily commuter train service would start in 2018 for Modesto and by 2022 for Turlock and Merced.
Federal and state funding to build the rail line will have to be arranged, but Stacey Mortensen said she's 85 percent sure it's going to work. She is the ACE executive director and she's confident public, political and financial support is lined up to make it happen.
The price tag: $161 million to build 20.3 miles of track between Modesto and Lathrop.
That's a bargain, according to Mortensen, who compared it with the $6 billion BART expects to spend for its 15-mile expansion from Fremont to San Jose.
The key is that the ACE tracks mostly would be built in the right of way next to the Union Pacific tracks. That route goes from Lathrop through Modesto, Turlock and Merced.
And the valley's three new train stations could be near bus transportation centers operating in those cities.
Downtown station preferred
In Modesto, the preferred station site would be near the old train depot and current city bus hub on Ninth Street between I and K streets.
"We've been talking for a long time about the need to take better advantage of our existing infrastructure," said state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, whose 5th Senate District includes all of San Joaquin County and part of Stanislaus County. "This is a tremendous opportunity for us. This will be a huge improvement for our communities."
Galgiani helped get legislation passed that allocated $36.4 million in state funds to study the ACE expansion. That money is coming from the voter-approved high-speed-rail bond, even though the proposed ACE train travels at regular speeds.
Galgiani said the plan is eventually to electrify the ACE system to speed up the trains, but the extension would be an interim step.
"I could certainly envision this being the first actual use of our high-speed dollars," said Galgiani, who is a Democrat and big supporter of bullet trains in California. "This would enable commuters to start receiving benefits right away."
Mortensen said the proposed ACE route could handle trains traveling up to 90 mph. She said it takes ACE trains a little more than two hours to travel the 90 miles between Stockton and San Jose, including stops at all 10 of its stations. The trip from Modesto through Lathrop to San Jose would take about the same time.
Support from Denham
Even Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican who has been critical about how much high-speed trains could cost taxpayers, thinks expanding ACE "is a great idea."
"It's proven ridership, and it's growing," Denham said of ACE. Calling himself "a big fan of rail," Denham said the goal is to have ongoing operating expenses covered by ticket sales rather than government subsidies.
Denham, whose 10th Congressional District covers Stanislaus and southern San Joaquin counties, said he agrees that taxpayers should pay the initial rail construction costs: "Government has a responsibility to build the infrastructure, just like with highways."
ACE averages about 2,000 round-trip passengers per weekday, including about 350 commuters who live in Stanislaus County, according to Mortensen.
Its trains began running in 1998, and it now offers four round-trip trains on weekdays, with occasional special trips at other times. The double-deck trains have four to seven cars, each with up to 150 seats.
A round-trip ticket from Stockton to San Jose is $23, but those who purchase monthly passes can lower their round-trip costs to about $16 a day.
"It's faster than driving (during commute traffic), plus you have the ability to focus on work or make phone calls while you ride," Galgiani said. "It's a quality-of-life issue, and it's much safer to ride the train than to drive."
Unlike utilitarian BART cars, ACE trains have restrooms, drinking fountains, tables and more comfortable seating. Food and beverages are allowed aboard, and there's storage room for carry-on packages.
"It's more like a rolling living room. There's a lot of self-governance by the passengers," said Mortensen, noting how regular commuters make sure newcomers keep things tidy. "Many of them ride every day, and they've gotten to know each other. … Some people have had the same seats for more than 10 years."
Mortensen said passengers socialize, including holding potluck meals and playing cards, having book clubs and knitting groups, and staging birthday parties and bridal showers.
Many Stanislaus residents appear anxious for the ACE extensions, at least judging by comments posted in response to questions posed by The Bee.
Bill Jones of Modesto, who is 78, said he remembers riding passenger trains as a child: "We used to be able to take the train from downtown to anywhere you wanted to go." Jones said he would use the ACE trains, especially if they connected to BART.
ACE offers shuttle buses to BART from its Pleasanton station. When BART extends to Livermore, Mortensen said, ACE is committed to offering a direct train connection to BART's station.
Connecting Modesto to mass transit such as ACE and eventually BART would stimulate the city's economy, assured Mayor Garrad Marsh. "It will bring a real vibrancy to our city center," he predicted.
City staff members have been studying downtown train service options for several years, and they envision linking ACE to Modesto's public bus system by placing the train station near the bus transit center.
"It would be a multimodal station with buses, trains and taxis all in one area to get you where you need to go," said Patrick Kelly, Modesto's planning manager.
The plan is to start with six round-trip trains through Modesto per day, then eventually increase that to 10. Kelly said adding passenger trains through downtown shouldn't clog traffic much because they would cross over city streets quickly.
"ACE trains are just a few cars long, as opposed to freight trains that can be a mile or more long," Kelley said. He said getting people out of their cars and onto trains would help reduce commuter traffic and stimulate housing construction downtown. "We believe this station will be a building block to revitalize the city … and stimulate commerce."
It might also give freight train service a boost. Mortensen said if ACE builds its tracks from Modesto to Lathrop, it would be willing to allow short-line railroads to use the track during off times — for a fee, of course.
"That's certainly worth considering," said Ronald Jackson, president of the Modesto & Empire Traction Co. and the 2,000-acre Beard Industrial District. "If they build the track, we would be most interested in talking to them about using it so we can increase the pipeline of goods and services in and out of Modesto."
M&ET's tracks connect to the Union Pacific line in downtown Modesto, so it wouldn't be hard to connect to the ACE tracks. "It could be very appealing, and it could be good for Modesto's economy," Jackson said, especially if the new line could improve Modesto's rail access to the Port of Stockton.
Turlock, Merced officials excited
Though passenger train service to their cities would be further out, Turlock and Merced officials also are excited about ACE expanding.
"We have an old downtown train station that would be readily available for ACE," said John Bramble, Merced's city manager. Transit buses serve that station, between O and M streets off 16th Avenue, so connections would be easy.
Many Merced residents commute daily to the Bay Area, but Bramble said even more drive north to jobs in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. Those valley commuters might be able to take ACE to jobs in Turlock, Modesto, Lathrop, Tracy or other stops along the line.
"We've very supportive of it," Bramble said. "It will help people and help air quality by reducing the number of vehicles driving up and down Highway 99."
Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden voiced similar support, noting how the ACE station could be near the Turlock Regional Transit Center at Golden State Boulevard and Dels Lane. That's about a mile from California State University, Stanislaus, so students might be able to use the train.
"We hope it can really come to fruition," Wasden said. "A strong transit system is important to economic growth."
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.
Coming UpThe San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission and the Altamont Corridor Express will hold informational meetings this month about the proposed extension of ACE trains to Modesto, Turlock and Merced.
The public can get details about what's planned, ask questions and voice concerns at those meetings, two of which will be held in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
• Modesto: 5-8 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, Stanislaus County Library, 1500 I St.
• Tracy: 5-8 p.m. Tuesday, July 30, Tracy Transit Station, 50 E. Sixth St.
For more information, go to www.acerail.com or call Dan Leavitt, ACE's manager of regional initiatives, at (209) 944-6220.
People Are TalkingThe Bee asked readers what they think about extending Altamont Corridor Express trains to Modesto, Turlock and Merced. Here's a sampling of comments from Facebook, email and voice messages:
• • • • Bill Jones, 78, Modesto: "I would go more often if they had an ACE train here. Getting to BART is a challenge now. They never have any parking spaces at BART. … A $15 ticket price would be reasonable. … We used to be able to take the train from downtown Modesto to anywhere you wanted to go."
• • • • Paul Urban, Oakdale: "An ACE train coming out of the valley going into the Bay Area is much more important than that high-speed rail train being worked on. That's just a boondoggle of good tax money. That money should be spent on an ACE-train-type situation to enhance our state."
• • • • Rick Morningstar, Modesto: "I would use it. I think we would all breathe a little easier. … With more accessibility to the (Bay Area) and its international travel and job markets, our towns would thrive."
• • • • Sandy Campbell, Turlock: "As someone who lives by the tracks in Turlock, I am a little worried."
• • • • Suzanne Guthrie, Modesto: "I have ridden the ACE from Lathrop to San Jose several times. Nice ride, nice train. … With a good BART connection, it would be easier to go to San Francisco, the East Bay or San Jose for the day without having to drive to Pleasanton. With six trains there should be a decent number of time options."
• • • • Laurene and Patricia Nelson, Newman: "We believe the ACE train would bring more businesses, people and growth to the area. People could and would commute to the Bay Area using the train and BART. We definitely would go to the Bay Area at least twice a month, but now we go only when we have to because of the traffic, which will get worse over the next five years."
• • • • Ruben Villalobos, Modesto: "I would love the extension. Currently, I usually only take (legal) cases within a 30-minute drive. The train would allow me to take cases farther away, get work done on the train and not have to deal with traffic. That's a win-win."
• • • • Valorie Eads Fitzgerald, Modesto: "I absolutely believe expanding the ACE train into Modesto, Turlock and Merced is a step in the right direction. … We also need service that connects us to the Capitol. ... It would make us a more desirable place to do business. It would change my life by giving us cleaner, more convenient access to friends and family in the Bay Area."
• • • • Sandra Souza-Desimone, Modesto: "I remember going from the downtown station to Richmond in the '60s. It was great, and I have wondered with all of our 'progress' what happened. This is finally a decision in the right direction. More transportation options would lead to business opportunities."
• • • • Mary Kundert Smith: "As with all things California, it's over 10 years overdue. We used to be a state of innovation and anticipated growth. Now, generations wait for the state to 'catch up' with our citizens. If one politician had to endure the commutes the taxpayers do, it would start improvements yesterday."
• • • • Mark Smith: "If they are serious about doing this, why would it take five years? The tracks are already in place. The ACE stations in other cities aren't much more than concrete platforms. If it's a needed service, seems to me like it could be running within a year."
• • • • Bill Redford: "My whole family would use this. It would drastically improve our economic outlook and overall quality of life — assuming it remains competitive or more attractive than gas prices."
• • • • Becky Quinlan: "I work for a company based in San Francisco and drive in for meetings either in SF or San Jose twice a week. The train would save time that would otherwise be spent sitting in traffic on Interstate 580."
• • • • Yareli Ramírez: "It would also make it possible for more students who commute to schools like UC Merced and CSU Stanislaus to have more accessible greener transportation."
• • • • Nancy Norton: "We need this now because I know so many people who commute. It would greatly reduce the pollution in this valley."
• • • • Karen Servas: "Using the existing Union Pacific tracks at the downtown Modesto station? Definitely, I would ride the train and transfer at the BART station to get into SF."
• • • • Brian Hill: "What about parking? Part of the appeal of the ACE stations is all but two stations have large parking lots with free parking."