Whether the dream of Bay Area-bound passenger trains from the Modesto area comes true in the next few years may depend on a series of important steps:
▪ Leaders throughout Stanislaus County must agree, supporters say, to dedicate at least 12 percent of proceeds from a future transportation tax to extend rail from Manteca to Modesto and eventually to Turlock.
▪ Voters throughout the county must approve a higher sales tax in 2016.
▪ Local agencies must persuade state and federal officials to subsidize the extension with about a billion dollars.
An impossible dream? Not at all, say undaunted rail enthusiasts, who have launched an ACEforward public relations drive to win support up and down the Valley. That includes Merced County, where people someday might catch bullet trains headed for Southern California.
“We think this is something that can help transform the region,” said Dan Leavitt, initiatives manager for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. That agency owns and runs the Altamont Corridor Express, whose trains carry thousands of Valley residents each workday to jobs in the East Bay and Silicon Valley.
Extending the line to Modesto by 2018 and to Turlock and perhaps Merced by 2022 would transform ACE’s mission of serving mostly commuters because thousands would flock to trains for travel, medical appointments, sporting events and more, supporters say. The trains would take many cars off highways, they say, improving air quality and stress levels of all involved.
“There is strong support from those I’m talking to,” said Modesto Councilman Bill Zoslocki. “But I want to hear from the public. It’s important to understand what the public wants.”
People soon will have chances to share thoughts, and feedback might determine whether the effort chugs on.
In February, Stanislaus transportation leaders are expected to hire a consulting firm to hold public workshops and town hall meetings starting as soon as March. They will ask people what the money from higher sales tax – perhaps $970 million over 25 years – should be spent on, assuming it passes.
Most voters throughout the county supported previous half-cent transportation tax measures in 2006 and 2008, but both failed to capture the necessary two-thirds supermajority. All California counties with larger populations than Stanislaus have approved such transportation taxes, except for Kern and Ventura, and use proceeds to leverage about three times the amounts in additional state and federal money.
Three similar transportation measures also failed in Merced County, in 2002 and twice in 2006.
The 2006 Stanislaus measure would have set aside 1 percent for rail, or about $10 million. In 2008, leaders offered zero for rail or senior and disabled transit, thinking that most voters would prefer that half of proceeds should fix neighborhood roads, with the other half helping to build expressways such as the future North and South County corridors and a Highway 132 bypass near downtown Modesto.
Is it possible that more 2006 and 2008 voters would have jumped on board if leaders had promised more money for trains?
Some of the 20 California counties with voter-approved transportation taxes set aside far more than 12 percent for rail, and Leavitt’s office would prefer a much higher number. San Joaquin County, for example, earmarks 32 percent for transit; without its Measure K, San Joaquin could not have widened Highway 120 and Interstate 205 or launched ACE service over the Altamont Pass.
A few members of the Stanislaus Council of Governments were reluctant to predict whether the board might consider 12 percent for rail, a relatively high share compared with 2006 and 2008. If successful in 2016, 12 percent would translate to $115 million over 25 years; without that contribution, Stanislaus would have no chance of attracting more than $1 billion more in state and federal money for ACEforward, Leavitt said.
“People generally support the idea of bringing ACE to Modesto, Turlock and Merced, but the devil’s always in the details of how to pay for it,” said Vito Chiesa, a Stanislaus supervisor and chairman of StanCOG, the agency that will craft a spending proposal for the 2016 vote. “We’ll have to go to the community and see what they’re willing to pay (for rail). I don’t know what the appetite is.”
Hoping to whet that appetite – and as part of ACEforward environmental studies now underway – ACE cheerleaders have been making the circuit, chatting up elected leaders, chambers of commerce and other power brokers from Ripon to Merced.
Former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño, who works in public relations, is scheduled Tuesday to present the expansion plan at an invitation-only meeting of the Modesto Rotary Club. Anyone can attend a Thursday briefing before the League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County starting at noon at Jacob’s Fine Dining, 2501 McHenry Ave., Modesto; entry is $13.
ACE people hit up Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth a few days ago, he said. But he’s not making any promises; Turlock has other transportation fish to fry, such as a costly future expressway linking that city with Interstate 5. Its voters in November did not pass a higher tax just for Turlock with a road-projects component.
“I think it’s too early to tell,” Soiseth said about rail money. “I’m open to all suggestions, but I’m not committed to ACE trains coming to Turlock.”
If StanCOG agrees to give rail 12 percent of a transportation tax, and if voters embrace the increase in 2016, Leavitt believes ACEforward would stand a good chance of luring state and federal money. State officials in particular are looking to spend millions of air-quality cap-and-trade dollars meant to curb greenhouse gas emissions; a potential rail link from the Bay Area to Southern California via the Valley would make a compelling case, Leavitt said.
ACEforward planning maps show a potential depot in Ripon, but Leavitt said state officials would not give money for a short ACE extension without the promise of someday linking all the way to Merced. Merced officials have not decided whether to pursue another transportation tax vote.
Richard Curiel, a longtime San Francisco 49ers season-ticket holder, drove from his Turlock home to catch an ACE train in Manteca for each home game in the fall. He interrupted a vacation in the Philippines to call The Modesto Bee and say he would prefer boarding in his hometown.
“Me, and a bunch of others,” said Curiel, whose calf sports a 49ers tattoo. “Absolutely. Oh yeah. By all means.”
To learn more, go to www.acerail.com/About/Public-Projects/ACEforward.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.