Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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ACE train updates designed to draw valley support for high-speed rail

High-speed rail supporters, having shunned San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties in a contested December routing decision, are trying to mend fences with the promise of faster ACE trains to East Bay stations.

The carrot is partially designed to lure valley votes for a $10 billion statewide bond measure in November needed for 220-mph bullet trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Political wisdom suggests passage might be difficult without support from people along the Altamont Pass route rejected five months ago, plus voters around Stockton, Modesto and perhaps Sacramento. The rejected alignment could have dropped riders at Disneyland two hours and nine minutes after leaving downtown Modesto, for the price of a $49 train ticket.

Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani is pushing a bill that could win about one-tenth of the bond money, or $950 million, to upgrade Altamont Commuter Express trains taken by some valley workers to the East Bay. Bullet trains could use improved ACE rails to zip from the valley to the Bay Area in a fraction of the time required by cars, Galgiani said.

"This is a huge, huge argument to make to our folks in the Central Valley," Galgiani said Tuesday. Her bill, co-authored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, is scheduled for hearing today in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The bill also prohibits a depot stop near Los Banos -- a nod to environmentalists' demands for protection of nearby wetlands that could be endangered by rail-inducing sprawl.

Bullet train fans say they use one-third the energy of airplanes and one-fifth that of cars. The 800-mile system envisioned by state authorities would cost at least $40 billion but could eliminate nearly 18 billion pounds of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to removing a million vehicles from California's roads.

Private-public partnerships

Gov. Schwarzenegger is pushing "P3" funding, or private-public partnerships. One scenario would split one-third obligations among business, state government and federal coffers. Detractors note huge government budget deficits in a sour economy.

Galgiani is from Livingston, a geographic winner whether or not rail officials had chosen the Altamont Pass over the Pacheco Pass for California high-speed rail's first phase. That they picked the latter "in essence infuriated the valley," acknowledged Modesto's Kirk Lindsey, a minority voice on the California High-Speed Rail Commission.

Commissioners endorsed Galgiani's bill last month.

Galgiani's district runs north through parts of Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties to include a significant chunk of Stockton. ACE commuters pick up trains there and in Lathrop and Tracy.

"My bill reflects the realization that both (Pacheco and Altamont) passes are complemen-tary to one another," she said.

Opponents are not impressed.

The $950 million carrot "was in the bond from the start," said David Schonbrunn, president of Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund. He said his group will sue to force reconsideration of the Altamont route, which was rejected, he said, because land along the Pacheco alignment is much cheaper.

"This is a real estate deal," Schonbrunn said, "not transportation. We think high-speed rail is the future of California, we think it's crucial and we think they're screwing it up badly."

Some environmentalists, however, are appeased by the amendment to Galgiani's bill prohibiting stops from Merced to Gilroy, to protect expansive waterfowl habitat. The Sierra Club of California continues to negotiate for resources to help valley agencies plan for transit-oriented development, or growth focused around depots to reduce vehicle trips.

"The role high-speed rail will play will push the valley either toward being more sustainable or less sustainable," Sierra Club advocate Tim Frank said.

He acknowledged that Galgiani's bill makes no promise for ACE money, but simply allows ACE to compete for the $950 million with other corridors looking to boost connections to high-speed rail.

But Galgiani notes that a recent bill amendment "elevates the focus" of Altamont trains. She envisions ACE adding tracks and grade separations, or running rails over or under roads where vehicles now wait for trains to pass.

"Essentially, we're preparing the ACE system so that it could share tracks with high-speed trains," she said.

ACE trains carry about 3,500 riders daily, including about 350 from Stanislaus County, spokesman Thomas Reeves said. Delay complaints because of conflicts with Union Pacific freight trains could be reduced if ACE had money to build more and longer "sidings," or turn-out spurs, used to let other trains pass, he said.

Lindsey said Galgiani's bill is "very good" if it furthers valley interests. "This needs to be for the whole valley, not just part."

Tracks through Modesto?

High-speed rail supporters say eventually they'll run tracks north from Merced to Sacramento, passing through Modesto. That could happen by 2020, assuming the Bay Area-Anaheim line is done by 2014, Galgiani said.

Modesto City Councilman Dave Lopez said downtown could experience another revival with business from bullet trains. He's even more intrigued at the thought of his son, who attends California State University, Sacramento, commuting from Modesto on a 31-minute train for $22, figured in 2005 dollars. Other students might live at home and make similar trips to universities in Merced and Fresno, he said.

It won't happen soon enough for his son, Lopez said -- but could for his 5-week-old daughter.