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Concert paused to thank Cannella for ACE train effort
State Senator Anthony Cannella (left) was honored at Tuesday's Ceres concert intermission by Supervisor Vito Chiesa for his support of the ACE train via a massive state gas tax increase vote. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

State Senator Anthony Cannella's controversial swing vote in April to support a massive state gasoline tax hike in trade for an ACE train station in Ceres, Turlock and Merced, was heralded as a brave political move during intermission of the Tuesday's Ceres Concert in the Park.

The Whitmore Park event was paused to allow locals to pile on accolades and certificates of appreciation to the Ceres Republican, who was mayor before ascending to the state Senate. Cannella will be termed out of office next year.

The new Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) train with its downtown Ceres station should be a reality before 2023, said Virginia Madueno, a consultant with the ACEforward Initiative.

Standing by large blow-ups of artist renderings in the park, Ceres City Manager Toby Wells explained how the ACE station will be constructed west of Highway 99 near the southbound onramp in downtown Ceres. Parking for 600 vehicles would be offered both west and east of the raised freeway, he said. Negotiations are in the works to create a large parking lot west of 99 while diagonal parking will be offered along El Camino Avenue, from Central Avenue to the southern point of Whitmore Park. To create room for the parking stalls just west of Whitmore Park, a new concrete retaining wall needs to be constructed next to the freeway. Both walls would be painted as part of the station design. Pedestrians coming from east of the freeway will be able to access the train platform via the existing overpass structure.

The ACE line will operate on a second dedicated rail line independent of the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks, said Wells. Still needing to be worked out is how to cross the Stanislaus River south of Ripon since the existing trestle has no room for a parallel line.

Supervisor Vito Chiesa of Hughson, the chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, called Cannella's move "brave."

"We talk about game-changers in the community, things that make it better," said Chiesa, who presented a certificate to Cannella to commend him for his vote. "Nobody ever wants to pay more in taxes but we all want good roads. We don't want congested road. We want safe roads and we need public transportation for some people who might not be able to own a car. Then we also need the ability to get places in Sacramento and over to the Bay Area. ACE is going to do that for us. It's going to be a game-changer for our community."

He said the ACE project and other public transportation projects will help eliminate pollution as well.

Ceres Vice Mayor Mike Kline also thanked Cannella for his support, followed by Juan Romo who offered praises on behalf of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.

"We're very excited about coming down to Ceres," said Chris Kay, the outreach and marketing manager for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. "Already ACE currently takes 1.3 million passengers a year and makes a huge difference for people going from the Central Valley to the Bay Area. It's a good way to bring jobs."

He pledged to work as hard as possible to get ACE as far south as Merced "as soon as possible."

Cannella said he has worked hard to benefit Ceres but noted that Modesto, Turlock and Merced get ACE stations as well.

"I was very concerned about Ceres getting a station and fortunately we started working with ACE a couple of years ago to get Ceres in the EIR," said Cannella. He pointed across the park and asked the crowd to imagine what it will be like to see a connecting point to San Francisco.

"That's a huge deal for our community. A huge deal."

He acknowledged that not "everybody is super thrilled about" SB 1 but he said California roads need to be fixed. In April he defended his vote, saying "this state cannot continue to just put asphalt band aids on potholes when what we really need is major road and rail surgery to keep Californians and their economy moving."

The Legislature voted in April to pass Governor Jerry Brown's $52 billion transportation plan, Senate Bill 1, and Cannella served as the pivotal vote in the Senate for the package, a comprehensive measure that will upgrade highways, local roads and rail throughout the state over the next 10 years.

In exchange for his support for the tax increases, Cannella received a state pledge of $400 million to his pet project of extending ACE to Merced.

The ACE train is often confused with the bullet train, or high-speed rail, but it's not.

Over the next decade, legislation will raise the money to pay for the plan through a number of statewide fees, including a 12-cent gas tax increase and 20-cent diesel tax increase. Vehicle license fees would be raised an average of $38 per vehicle, and drivers would also face a new annual fee to be paid along with their vehicle registration, ranging from $25 to $175 depending on the value of their car.

Electric vehicles would cost their drivers $100 per year beginning in 2020.

The fuel tax hikes of SB 1 will take effect Nov. 1, while the vehicle license fee increase will take effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Proposals which require tax hikes require a "yes" vote from two-thirds of each house to pass. The deal received the bare minimum of votes, with the state Senate voting 27-11 and the state Assembly voting 54-26.

Deal making with legislators who had not previously supported the bill was another tactic the governor used, and Cannella made sure that the Valley didn't walk away from the new plan emptyhanded. Cannella had previously said he may support the bill if the state supported the extension of the ACE to Ceres and Merced and a parkway project connecting the UC Merced campus to Highway 99. After spending time at Brown's mansion on the eve of the vote, Cannella got the job done. SB 132, a separate bill which went into print on the day of the vote, amends the Budget Act of 2016 to include $400 million for the project, granting Cannella's wish.

While Republican lawmakers have criticized the gas tax hike, Cannella defended his "yes" vote.

In April, Ceres City Manager Toby Wells commended Cannella, saying "none of us like to pay additional taxes but what Senator Cannella was able to do, securing funding for the ACE train to Ceres is a significant item for us."