Could Bay Area and SoCal interests ruin key links for Central Valley’s ACE Train?

Altamont Commuter Express train pulls into the Stockton station. If it isn’t derailed by Proposition 6, the ACE train will be coming to Modesto within two years. It will reach Merced soon after.
Altamont Commuter Express train pulls into the Stockton station. If it isn’t derailed by Proposition 6, the ACE train will be coming to Modesto within two years. It will reach Merced soon after. aalfaro@modbee.com

In two or three years, new train services should be whisking Stanislaus County riders toward the Bay Area and Sacramento. It’s exciting to think that a longtime dream of new links with these jobs centers is on the horizon. Transit shortens the distance between different regions’ cultures and economies, and we look forward to rail enriching Valley lives.

Earlier this year, news that Governor Gavin Newsom’s enthusiasm had waned for a prior high-speed rail plan brought mixed emotions. On one hand, he acknowledged that the grand vision for high-speed rail throughout California, pushed by former Governor Jerry Brown, no longer is feasible. On the other, Newsom threw his weight behind the idea of completing a single segment in our Valley, from Bakersfield to Merced.

We applauded the latter part, because Merced is just 40 miles south of Modesto on Highway 99. That’s doable, and would open options for us toward Southern California.

Rail plans and projects depend on government money, making them everlastingly subject to political pressure. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that aspects of two of the Modesto area’s future rail links — to the Bay Area, and to Southern California — could be at risk. Key decisions on both fronts are expected in coming weeks.

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Let’s examine both challenges.

First, the Bay Area link is essentially guaranteed because funding is secure for new or renovated stations in Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Ceres, Turlock, Livingston or Atwater, and Merced. Less sure are important but expensive improvements on rails heading toward the East Bay, including straightening some track near the Altamont Pass and punching a new tunnel through it.

These improvements could be funded by a 1-cent sales tax increase in nine Bay Area counties, which proponents have named the Faster Bay Area transportation tax measure. They’re selling it as the means toward a world-class transportation network while taking drivers out of pollution-spewing cars.

Why do we here in the Valley care? Because they’re now developing a list of projects to help persuade voters to pass the tax. And, with tons of worthy projects competing for money, not everyone wants to see Altamont rail improvements on this list, which could be formalized by year’s end.

It’s encouraging that several of our elected representatives here have officially endorsed these rail improvements there. They include U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, Senators Cathleen Galgiani and Anna Caballero and Assemblyman Adam Gray. Also sending letters of support were city leaders in Modesto, Ripon, Riverbank and Merced, as well as Stanislaus County supervisors. These leaders, particularly at the state and federal level, must continue advocating for clean and efficient rail.

Second, powerful interests are lobbying to divert billions of dollars from the Valley’s high-speed rail segment — ending in Merced, remember — in favor of other transit needs in Southern California and the Bay Area. That debate could be settled as soon as November, at a meeting of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Again, elected leaders must raise their voices against this ill-advised money-grab.

A July Los Angeles Times report noted that more people live in Southern California and the Bay Area than the historically neglected Valley, using these troubling words: “Ridership, revenue, greenhouse gas reduction and political payoff are strongest at the ends, not the center.”

They should remember that the heart is near the center, not at the ends.