OUR VIEW: ACE extension to Stanislaus County has its merits

July 28, 2013 

W hether you are a supporter or opponent of California's high-speed rail project, you have to acknowledge that it will be a long, long time before it runs through Modesto — 30 or 40 years, maybe.

We've always liked the concept of bullet trains, but remain concerned that the initial segment, between Madera and south of Fresno, will be costly and not all that useful to most Californians.

Getting the Altamont Corridor Express to Modesto, on the other hand, is an attractive possibility that feels within reach — if we're willing to work and contribute toward it.

ACE leaders suggest daily commuter train service could start in 2018 for Modesto and by 2022 for Turlock and Merced. Currently the trains run between Stockton and San Jose, with stops in Lathrop, Tracy, Livermore, Pleasanton, Fremont, Great America and Santa Clara.

About 4,000 people a day, more than 350 of them Stanislaus residents, already use ACE trains to commute to and from the Bay Area, according to the agency. Three Modesto Area Express buses carry passengers to the Lathrop ACE station each weekday morning, and a like number return in late afternoon and evening.

What's not to like about ACE stretching down into Modesto and later Turlock and Merced?

There always seem to be environmental concerns for project such as these, although arguably it's much greener to operate trains — even those pulled by diesel engines — than thousands of cars.

A major environmental review will be done before the ACEforward proposal advances. Firm dates aren't set, but there will be ample time for public comments and objections. Noise and other disruptions will have to be mitigated.

Some will argue that having a quick train service will just encourage more commuters to move to the Modesto area, leading to higher housing prices that locals can't afford. Here's another way to look at it: Local employers will have to pay competitively or risk losing their people to Bay Area jobs. Some people are willing to spend hours each day commuting; others aren't. Our community went through a period of disdain toward Bay Area transplants (called BATs at the time). Today, most of them have thoroughly assimilated into our neighborhoods.

Cost also will be an issue. ACE has federal and state funding, including money from Proposition 1B, the high-speed rail bond, but not enough to cover the full cost, estimated at $161 million to build 20 miles of track between Modesto and Lathrop. If Modesto and Stanislaus County want ACE trains, they likely will have to put up some dollars.

San Joaquin County voters agreed to pay a half-cent higher sales tax in order to get transportation improvements, and about 30 percent of the revenue from its Measure K goes to mass transit — buses and trains. That money is helping to build an ACE maintenance facility and about $2.4 million a year also is used to help pay operating costs of ACE trains.

Santa Clara and and Alameda counties also use some of their "road tax" money for ACE trains. Stanislaus County doesn't have a sales tax for transportation, but there's significant discussion about putting it on the ballot in 2014.

One of the big benefits of a county having a sales tax earmarked for transportation — often referred to as being a self-help county — is that it leverages more money. State and federal agencies are far more willing to assist counties that will help themselves.

It's naive to think that someone else will just pay for Stanislaus residents to have this valuable service to and from the Bay Area. It would be a shame if the we- don't-want-to-pay-anything attitude blocks this opportunity.

The idea of ACE service to Modesto is not new. On Sept. 2, 1995, we carried a news story with this headline: "Rail commuter service envisioned for Modesto."

The vision is moving closer to a tangible possibility, especially given the solid record of success of the ACE trains serving San Joaquin County. It's a 20-mile reach. We should be able to get there in five or six years, if community leaders and citizens are willing to jump on board.

For more information on ACE, go to www.acerail.com. For more on the proposal to extend the ACE train to Modesto, go to http://goo.gl/p03eOc.

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