Hearing on rail improvement, expansion packs room in downtown Modesto

Assembly members Kristin Olsen and Adam Gray listen to a presentation on the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority on Friday  morning during a rail hearing in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place in downtown Modesto.
Assembly members Kristin Olsen and Adam Gray listen to a presentation on the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority on Friday morning during a rail hearing in the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place in downtown Modesto.

Residents and community leaders from as far as Santa Clara, Castro Valley, Fresno, Sacramento and even Mount Shasta filled the basement chambers of Tenth Street Place in downtown Modesto on Friday morning for a hearing on improving and expanding passenger rail service.

The informational hearing hosted by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, focused on the Altamont Corridor Express, which runs from Stockton to the East Bay and Silicon Valley, and Amtrak’s San Joaquin line, which skirts Modesto on its way from Bakersfield to Sacramento and the East Bay.

Amtrak recognizes that much of its service works only for leisure travelers and wants to attract business commuters with expanded schedules. ACE hopes to extend a line from Lathrop to Modesto by 2018 or ’19 and to Merced as soon as 2022 or ’23. Linking to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system is a longer-term goal and one that drew a lot of attention Friday.

Gray, who sits on the Assembly Select Committee on Rail, was joined for the hearing by Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, and state Sens. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, and Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, showing bipartisan support to get funding to improve services.

Having more convenient, inexpensive commuting options benefits everyone, Olsen said in her opening comments. “We can do this at a fraction of the cost of other proposals that are out there,” she said, “and we can do it while making significant improvements in our air quality and getting a significant number of people out of their cars who would much rather sit on a train and be able to read or start on their work or be on a conference call.”

For more than two and a half hours, elected officials at the state and local levels; representatives from the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (an agency composed of Valley officials, which recently assumed control of Amtrak’s San Joaquin), the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, and regional business and community groups; and riders and residents largely voiced their support.

It was enough that one of the 30 or so people who spoke during the hearing’s public-comment portion called it an “overwhelming love fest” and wondered why with such support, improving rail is taking so long.

One big answer to that question: money. Several times during the hearing, talk turned to going after a bigger share of cap-and-trade funding, meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions, for the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program.

“Twenty thousand people commute out of Merced County daily north to the Bay Area,” Merced County Supervisor Hub Walsh said during public comments, adding that rail improvement and expansion “is a clear candidate” for cap-and-trade dollars.

Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for the joint powers authority, said, “We are really focused on following the lead of members of the Legislature such as Sen. Cannella and Sen. Galgiani on trying to get support to increase the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program cap-and-trade (funding), which is currently at 10 percent, to 20 percent. ... In addition, if there are any new sales taxes allocated to the public transportation account, we believe those should include intercity rail.”

Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, chairman of the Stanislaus Council of Governments, told the legislators, “We’re an aspiring county, going after a sales tax, I believe, in 2016. Although we don’t have an expenditure plan at this time, I would expect rail to be a component of the half-cent sales tax. … Building more lane miles, yes that works, but having more train service, having more mass transit and bus service is all part of it.”

Adding a seventh daily round trip – between Oakland and Bakersfield – is the JPA’s highest priority and should be in service by April, Leavitt said. He said the board also wants to initiate midcorridor trips that would start in Merced rather than Bakersfield. A train leaving Merced at 5 a.m. would arrive in Oakland about 8 a.m., he said.

A direct connection from ACE to BART, said San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission Executive Director Stacey Mortensen, “is very important to us. We’ve wanted to work on that for a long time. It’s a complex solution – BART has to get farther to the east for us to make that happen but it really is a benefit to ACE, BART and Interstate 580. If you can siphon off a bunch of the people coming across that pass at Greenville (Road in Livermore), they never will get on that congested throat of I-580 in the first place.”

Closing the 10-mile ACE-BART gap also is an expensive plan – an estimated $3.5 billion, Mortensen said. Pressed on a timeline, she said, “Decades, because when you’re talking billions of dollars, you’re talking decades.”

A spokesman for a congressman from the East Bay attended to voice support from that side of the Altamont. Former Dublin Mayor Tim Sbranti, now deputy chief of staff to Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, said, “His top transportation priority is connecting BART to ACE. It’s something we all realize would be a game changer for all of our residents, both in the Central Valley and in the Tri-Valley and the Bay Area to be able to free up passage on I-580.”

Wrapping up the hearing, Gray said a next step for the Select Committee on Rail is to engage with the San Joaquin Valley caucus legislators to write a formal resolution in support of ACE and the SJJPA. He said the caucus also should write a letter in support of the increased cap-and-trade funding for the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program. The Valley needs to “access those very important resources we need to make these improvements.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327