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High-speed rail debate making stop in Modesto

When it comes to progress on high-speed rail, Modesto and Stanislaus County form the caboose.

Over several months, people up and down California have been weighing in on the idea of 220-mph bullet trains zipping through their communities. Modesto and Stanislaus County are last to be heard, in town hall meetings yet to be scheduled but aiming for January.

"Compared to everyone else, this is the last in line," said Jeffrey Barker, California High-Speed Rail Author- ity's deputy executive director. "But it's not like there's a race of any sort."

The January public hearings are important, Barker and other transportation leaders say, because people can voice whether they prefer trains stopping in downtown Modesto or at the Amtrak station east of town.

The hearings will focus on the 110-mile stretch from Sacramento to Merced. Preliminary estimates predict the journey will take 43 minutes and cost $25 per ticket.

But that segment is the last of nine in California receiving environmental studies and town hall meetings. Most high-speed rail energy centers on the high-profile first phase from San Francisco to Anaheim, scheduled to run by 2020.

Also on a fast track is a line from the Bay Area to Stockton that could replace Altamont Commuter Express diesel engines with faster electric trains. That line eventually could extend to Modesto as well, and Modesto City Councilman Garrad Marsh was miffed when the city was snubbed during that segment's recent town hall meetings.

The Sacramento-Merced segment enjoys enthusiasm from elected leaders in Sacramento, San Joaquin and Merced counties, but has drawn only lukewarm support from leaders in Stanislaus County, said Stacey Mortensen, executive director of the San Joaquin Rail Commission.

"This is key infrastructure," said Frank Ploof of Salida, a former ACE commuter and transit advocate. "If we want the valley to prosper in the new economy, then Modesto needs to get on board."

Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini, the board's former representative to the Rail Commission, is skeptical about high- speed rail, saying those who stand to profit most are consultants pushing it. If it's ever built, DeMartini said, "it would be another money-losing transit system that would go in the hole millions of dollars every year. I've never been a big supporter."

Now representing the county is Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who said he hasn't decided whether he's "a believer in high-speed rail." But he wants to be at the table bargaining for Modesto's vitality if a line materializes from Sacramento to Merced, he said.

"It's a hub of economic activity," Chiesa said, referring to stops on high-speed lines. Bullet trains require great distances between stops and leaders envision only about two dozen depots throughout California.

Marsh, also a relative newcomer to representing this area in high-speed rail discussions, prefers a downtown depot, which could more easily capture travelers' dollars. But that line's owners are more interested in freight, Marsh said, and Chiesa said the Amtrak corridor isn't as congested.

Rail leaders are talking about urban grade separations, where roads go under or over rails. Marsh likes the concept of sinking roads 10 feet into the earth, with rails lifted about 10 feet in the air.

Mortensen said segments between cities such as Sacramento and Modesto could be used for 150-mph regional commuting trains, when bullet trains aren't using the special rails. But electric regional trains still would be much more efficient than ACE trains now running to San Jose, which top out at 79 mph.

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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.