ACE train service to Modesto hinges on tax

gstapley@modbee.comJuly 26, 2013 

— Supporters of a drive for trains between Modesto and the Bay Area sought Friday to dispel the kind of controversy that has dogged its cousin, high-speed rail.

With U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham — a high-speed rail critic but fan of the Altamont Corridor Express — on hand, ACE representatives said a local sales tax increase could provide important funding for a long-awaited extension to Modesto.

How much would come from that future source, however, would have to be decided by voters in an election. Typically, such transportation taxes go mostly to road improvements, with some reserved for public transit such as trains and buses.

"We are not going to tax people just because of ACE," spokesman Thomas Reeves said at Friday's presentation, hosted by the Modesto Chamber of Commerce.

Reeves' boss had noted Wednesday at a Modesto open house that voters in all counties through which ACE trains pass have approved such surtaxes. Passenger fares cover 38 percent of costs with the rest subsidized by taxpayers.

About 350 people from Stanislaus County catch ACE trains to the East Bay from stations in Lathrop or Tracy each workday. Supporters hope to establish Modesto service by 2018, and to extend it to Turlock and Merced in 2022.

Stanislaus County voters in 2006 rejected a transportation tax mostly for street projects that would have set aside an additional $25 million for rail and bus systems. But those services were not included in a 2008 measure dedicated only to roads; that also failed, by a narrow margin.

Modesto City Councilman Dave Geer, whose district would be home to a $10 million downtown station, asked what obligations cities could expect to shoulder. Reeves said such measures cover the entire county and that proceeds could be used for construction, operating costs or both.

The Stanislaus Council of Governments, a transportation panel composed of elected representatives from the county and its cities, would determine a spending formula to put before voters, said consultant Mike Lynch.

Places with such surtaxes are known as self-help counties because that money can be used to leverage much more in state and federal funding, allowing larger projects.

Denham chairs a House railroad committee. He has scorned the current proposal for high-speed rail, largely because of cost concerns, while embracing shorter commuter lines such as ACE.

"There could be opportunities to grab federal dollars to spur an infusion of money to get things started," Denham said Friday. Reeves said chances at landing such money are much greater if the county has "seed money" from a transportation tax.

Officials have mulled asking voters for a transportation tax, perhaps in fall 2014, by increasing sales tax by a half-percent. First, Modesto voters will decide Nov. 5 whether to raise the city's sales tax by 1 percent for general needs.

Tax increases dedicated to a specific purpose, such as transportation or libraries, require two-thirds approval. General increases such as Modesto's need a simple majority.

Denham listened to passengers on an ACE train in May, with TV cameras rolling, and on Friday invited other supporters to join him on a similar ride Aug. 15. He said ACE "has a different feel" than other public transportation, such as Bay Area Rapid Transit or Amtrak, describing ACE as "like a living room setting" where people can work, chat or share potluck meals with other commuters.

"I think it sells itself," he said.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.comor (209) 578-2390.

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