If the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) train is extended into Stanislaus County on its way to Merced, there is a possibility that Ceres may get its own station for residents to ride to the Bay Area or even Sacramento.
City officials were given that good news during Monday's City Council meeting update on the proposed ACE extension.
"We think this station is quite doable and it fits in with our ACEforward notion as we're trying to service downtown areas that could help revitalize downtown communities," Dan Leavitt, manager of Regional Initiatives for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, told the council.
There's a lot of "ifs" when talking about the project. The ACEforward initiative is banking on voters of both Stanislaus and Merced counties independently passing half-cent sales tax measures for transportation, of which the lion's share will go to local roads with a share going to the train.
A year ago Virginia Madueno, a consultant for the ACEforward Initiative, said that a Ceres station was unlikely with planned stations in downtown Modesto and Turlock. But on Monday Madueno said she was ready to "eat some humble pie" as she introduced Leavitt, who told the council that a Ceres station is feasible.
The commission and city officials have determined that an ACE train station could be constructed on El Camino Avenue at North Street east of the freeway with a pedestrian walkway under the existing overpass near Whitmore Park. State Senator Anthony Cannella, who lives in Ceres, sparked the commission to consider the Ceres station.
Leavitt said a Ceres station would appeal to riders from Ceres, Hughson, Keyes and northern Turlock.
"Our initiative forecast is showing there would be an increase in ridership by having a station in Ceres," said Leavitt.
Councilman Mike Kline who represents Ceres on StanCOG Policy Board, has pushed for the Ceres station.
"I probably know 25 people right now who take the ACE train because of work and just for them to catch it, instead of having to go all the way to Lathrop, I think the benefit and potential is there," said Kline.
Leavitt said "relatively limited changes to the existing infrastructure" would be required to create a Ceres station. Engineers have determined that a parking area for riders' cars could be created between El Camino Avenue and the freeway by cutting into the slope of the raised highway grade and building a vertical retaining wall. Passengers would then walk along a pedestrian route under the existing southbound 99 off ramp. Some kind of traffic calming measures would be needed so that pedestrians could safely cross across traffic to access a platform situated west of the freeway and east of the railroad tracks.
Officials believe that the ACE train line could be extended to Modesto by 2019 and Merced by 2023.
Currently the closest ACE train access to Ceres is the Manteca/Lathrop station although there are stations in Stockton and Tracy. The station was made possible there, she said, because San Joaquin County passed a half-cent sales tax for transportation.
Adding trains, expanding service and improving tracks on the Union Pacific Railroad corridor would be costly, close to $1 billion, said Leavitt. If Stanislaus County voters approve a half-cent sales tax next year, the ACE rail program can be leveraged for millions in state funds through the cap and trade program. ACE also operates on taxpayer subsidies, as rider fares capture half of operating costs.
There is a push to add ACE stations in downtown Tracy, at River Island development, downtown Manteca, downtown Ripon, downtown Modesto, downtown Turlock and possibly Livingston or Atwater before ending at Merced. Leavitt said there is a strong market to extend service from Stockton to Sacramento.
The ACE train, which has been operating for 17 years, is often confused with the bullet train, or high-speed rail, but it's not, Madueno stressed. It operates with a 94 percent on-time performance and zero passenger fatalities. Approximately 1.3 million passengers per year use ACE.
If Stanislaus County can get the half-cent sales tax passed in November 2016, the ACE train extension into the region is much more likely.
Madueno said the ACE train "really does create some tremendous opportunities for economic development and for a better quality of life."
Daily trains leave Manteca/Lathrop at 4:39 a.m., 5:54 a.m., 6:59 a.m. and 7:24 a.m. to transport 4,000 daily over the Altamont Pass into the Bay area. Most passengers get off at the Silicon Valley. The train returns at 5:23 p.m., 6:23, 7:23 and 8:26 p.m. The projection is to have six trains by 2020 to Modesto and by 2025 into Merced. Weekend service is not currently provided but with the line running to Merced, the goal would be to have 10 daily trips and weekend service. That would enable Valley residents to ride to the new Levi Stadium in Santa Clara for weekend games.
The Modesto extension would serve nearly 240,000 to access the train.
ACE connects with the BART station with a free quick shuttle, said Madueno.
ACE is estimated to divert at least 42.8 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) off the highway system. With a Modesto line, at least 40 million VMTs will have been diverted.
Leavitt said the ACE train provides a stress-free and often quicker alternative to the I-580 corridor traffic "which is some of the worst traffic in Northern California." He said some can work on their laptops while others sleep or play games.
Madueno said the ACE train will become significant as the Bay Area experiences a housing shortage - estimates say short some 250,000 homes in the next 20 years - and sends commuters scurrying back to the Valley to buy homes.
Councilmember Linda Ryno said she rode ACE from Lathrop to Levi Stadium in Santa Clara and said "it was absolutely awesome" with cleaner cars and different scenery than BART.
Mayor Chris Vierra said "this is a great opportunity."
"I think it would be fabulous if we're able to at least be a part of the environmental process because I can guarantee you if we are not a part of that process we will not have a station here. There's no guarantee that we will but at least if we're mentioned in there, it's the right direction. I would agree with you, Councilmember Kline. I would support it 200 percent."
Ceres Chamber of Commerce President Renee Ledbetter said she is "totally ecstatic about this."
"I know I'm not the only Ceres resident who gets tired of being overlooked for Modesto and Turlock and other communities and I really, really believe that this is a great thing for our community. I really hope we can find the funds and make it happen. It's going to be a significant improvement for our community and do wonders for economic development here, not to mention it's going to be great for the environment getting some of those cars off the freeway. The Chamber will definitely support this."