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County looks to create regional rail system

POSTED February 2, 2010 10:43 p.m.
High-Speed Rail may be coming down the tracks one day, but the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors entered into an agreement Tuesday to plan and develop a regional commuter rail system that could soon share those tracks.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a Memorandum of Understanding to enter a working group to collaborate with the California High-Speed Rail Authority that will see the county partner with more than 20 regional entities from Sacramento County to Merced County.
The working group is headed by the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which owns, operates, and is the policy-making body for the Altamont Commuter Express, and has been pursuing commuter rail service linking Valley cities between Merced and Sacramento Counties since 2006. Early efforts were stymied when existing railroads declined to allow additional trains on their tracks, but the High-Speed Rail project could offer a different commuter rail route through the Valley.
“When the High-Speed Rail bond passed, it provided an opportunity for a partner who wanted another rail corridor,” said Stacy Mortensen, director of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission.
Under the agreement, the working group will pursue dedicated passenger trackage to be shared by High-Speed Rail and a regional rail service between Merced and Sacramento. The working group hopes to see some rail improvements built in the near term, even before the High-Speed Rail system begins operation, so that regional service could commence with existing train sets.
That regional corridor would be connected with the Altamont Regional Corridor and other existing local and regional transit systems.
In May 2009, the Rail Commission entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the CHSRA to partner on planning the Altamont Regional Corridor/High-Speed Rail interconnect. The new working group is likely to assist in that project as well, but has yet to enter into a formal MOU with the CHSRA.
“We think some very early thought, some very cohesive thought needs to go into how we make those two lines connect,” Mortensen said.
The working group also has the stated priority of providing input on development of the Merced to Sacramento leg of the High-Speed Rail project. The group will offer a unified vision for the route of the Merced to Sacramento leg, as well as possible stations, schedules, and supplementary transit systems.
“We think through this Memorandum of Understanding the different entities can put together what we do want and convey that early on,” Mortensen said.
Tuesday’s agreement is just the first step in what is expected to be a series of board motions related to the project. Stanislaus County currently has no fiscal commitment in the working group.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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