ACE train to extend to Ceres, Merced thanks to deal on state gas-tax hike

Riders disembark from an Altamont Corridor Express train at a station serving Lathrop and Manteca in September.
Riders disembark from an Altamont Corridor Express train at a station serving Lathrop and Manteca in September. Modesto

In a legislative win for Valley lawmakers, a state bill to raise the gasoline tax statewide will provide funds for bringing the Altamont Corridor Express to Modesto and Ceres and ultimately to Merced.

State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, held a pivotal vote on the $52 billion transportation bill Thursday night and demanded funds for the ACE train, which carries passengers between Stockton and Lathrop and job centers in the Bay Area but has no stops in Stanislaus County.

Senate Bill 1 is mostly for repairs to crumbling roads and highways in California, but the negotiations secured $400 million to expedite a southern extension of ACE service to Stanislaus and Merced counties. The tax increase required two-thirds approval, meaning that votes from Valley lawmakers were crucial.

Cannella and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, teamed up in the negotiations with Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders.

Along with ACE service for Merced County, a trailer bill carves out $100 million in state highway funds for Campus Parkway between UC Merced and Highway 99.

The rail plan calls for an expansion of ACE from Lathrop to Modesto and Ceres by no later than 2023. The extension to Merced by 2027 will include stations in Turlock, Livingston or Atwater and ultimately Merced, said Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for the rail commission.

Gov. Brown praised Cannella and Gray for setting aside partisan politics to work out a deal that benefits their community and California.

In a conference call Friday with Modesto Bee editors and reporters, Gov. Brown dismissed arguments from Republicans, who opposed the bill, that the tax increase will hurt the poor.

Brown said lower-income families won’t have their cars damaged by potholes and can improve their lives with the thousands of jobs created by the bill. “The issue about poor people is an ideological, partisan issue,” Brown said. “These are real jobs. … Jobs, roads and trains make the qualify of life better.”

Cannella broke with fellow Republicans in the 27 to 11 vote that barely approved the transportation bill in the Senate. The 54-26 vote in the Assembly was a nail-biter, as three Assembly members delayed their votes for 10 minutes before providing the margin of approval.

The bill will increase the gas tax by 12 cents and raise vehicle license fees.

“For over two years, I have fought for real solutions to California’s transportation problems,” Cannella said in a statement. “This state cannot continue to just put asphalt Bandaids on potholes when what we really need is major road and rail surgery to keep Californians and their economy moving.”

Cannella added that the funding for ACE will transform commerce and consumer travel in the Central Valley.

“Senator Cannella and I stood together and made it known we would not support a transportation plan that failed to invest in our underserved region,” Gray said Thursday night. “We would not support new taxes only to watch those dollars leave our community to build infrastructure somewhere else. We would not be forgotten again.”

The ACE train will provide commuters with a less stressful alternative to what’s recently been a rough drive over the Altamont to work. ACE has also designed services for other riders, such as discounts for group excursions and transportation to San Francisco 49ers games at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

To appeal to voters in Stanislaus County in November, elected officials left the ACE train extension out of the Measure L transportation sales tax, saying it wouldn’t happen without a major infusion of state cash. Just six months after passage of Measure L, the maneuvers around SB 1 created the opportunity for securing the funds for ACE.

Stanislaus County officials were pleased with the ACE extension, but also favored the much-debated gas-tax increase to provide state funds for repaving local roads.

“Our roads in Stanislaus County are falling apart,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa. “The incredible investments guaranteed to our community under the plan negotiated by both Senator Cannella and Assemblyman Gray will create thousands of jobs, fix our roads, and construct a world class transit network.”

Republicans who opposed the bill said it would tax disadvantaged residents and also calls for massive spending on roads that won’t relieve traffic congestion.

The ACE extension and $100 million for Campus Parkway promise economic benefits for Merced County, said UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland in a news release.

“These projects will be an economic boon to our region, and we are grateful for support (from Gray and Cannella) as we continue the incredible growth of UC Merced and the rapidly accelerating development of the Merced community,” Leland said.

In Friday’s interview, Gov. Brown responded to critics who claimed the state has squandered transportation funds, leading to more taxes imposed on residents.

Brown said the California Department of Transportation endured 3,000 staff cuts and is now handling more projects with fewer staff. Brown said the state won’t waste time in spending the $5 billion in annual revenue.

“We are going to push stuff as fast as we can,” Brown said.

Cannella said the $400 million for ACE is an actual appropriation for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission for next year. It will come from $2.9 billion plowed into a Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program over 10 years.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16