Starting commuter train service between Modesto and the Bay Area in five years sounds like a great idea to many folks, but apparently there's a catch.
Before those Altamont Corridor Express trains can leave the station, Stanislaus County voters would have to agree to raise their sales taxes to help cover the cost.
That previously undisclosed tidbit was shared Wednesday night at an informational meeting about the ACE train's proposed expansion to Modesto, Turlock and Merced.
"If you want this option, you've got to have it," said Stacey Mortensen, the ACE executive director. ACE trains currently carry passengers from Stockton to San Jose, making four round trips each weekday. "Every county that has (passenger) rail service has a transportation sales tax."
That's because fares alone don't cover ACE's operating costs. Currently what passengers pay only covers about 38 percent of what it costs to run ACE. The rest comes from taxpayers.
San Joaquin County's transportation sales tax revenues, for instance, kick in about $2.4 million per year, which is about 14 percent of ACE's operating cost. Alameda County contributes $2.8 million (17 percent), Santa Clara County $3 million (18 percent), and assorted federal, state and local taxes cover the rest.
Collecting extra sales taxes "is something that makes ACE train service viable for the long term," Mortensen said. If it wants to extend commuter service to Modesto and eventually to Turlock, Mortensen said, Stanislaus County needs "to find a way to self-fund" its share of ACE.
That could be a problem, since Stanislaus voters have shot down transportation sales tax hikes twice in recent years.
This November, Modesto will seek voter approval to raise sales taxes by 1 percent to fund its general budget needs. When a transportation sales tax boost could be voted on and how much of an increase might be sought for trains is not known.
Some of those at Wednesday's gathering support paying extra taxes for ACE service.
"Paying even a 10 percent tax would be cheap. People just don't understand that," said Turlock's Paul Jevert, a retired Amtrak locomotive engineer. Increasing passenger trains "is the only salvation for our state. Our highways are in big trouble. We're going to be buried in pavement and particulate (matter pollution)."
Others were more cautious about endorsing tax increases.
"This whole idea needs to be discussed so it makes sense," said Bill Zoslocki, a building developer who is seeking election to Modesto's City Council this fall. He said transportation funding for other needs like improving Highway 132 may be more important than subsidizing commuter train service.
Besides increasing taxes to cover ongoing operating costs, ACE also would need to secure about $161 million for construction of 20.3 miles of track between Modesto and Lathrop.
The plan is to build ACE tracks in the right of way next to the existing Union Pacific tracks. That route already goes from Lathrop through Modesto, Turlock and Merced.
If all goes as proposed, daily commuter train service would start in 2018 for Modesto and by 2022 for Turlock and Merced.
Fans of the plan were easy to find among the several dozen people who attended Wednesday's event in downtown Modesto.
"We've got to get a station here so we can get all those cars off the road," said Irene Pedersen, who lives near Modesto. She grew up in Denmark, and she praised Europe's rail system.
"You can ride all the way from Rome to Copenhagen," Pedersen said. She longs to be able to hop a train to the Bay Area from Modesto to avoid driving and searching for a parking space.
Manteca's Darryl Bain is convinced extending ACE commuter train service to Modesto "would be a big shot in the arm" for Stanislaus County's economy.
Bain said he has advocated for expanded rail service since the mid-'70s, and he praised ACE for its speed and reliability.
The proposed ACE route could handle trains traveling up to 90 mph. The trip from Modesto through Lathrop to San Jose would take an estimated two hours, including stops at 10 stations along the way.
For more information, visit www.acerail.com or call Dan Leavitt at (209) 944-6220.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.