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Community members line up to voice support for rail expansion at public hearing
ACE train public hearing pic
Members of the community line up to speak during the public comment period of Friday's meeting of the Assembly Select Committee on Rail. Every speaker voiced support for expanded rail services in the Valley. - photo by NATALIE WINTERS/The Journal

Expansion of rail services from the Bay Area into the Central Valley received overwhelming support from local legislators, transportation agencies and the public during a special Modesto meeting on Friday of the Assembly Select Committee on Rail.

Assembly member Adam Gray hosted the public hearing and Senator Cathleen Galgiani (Stockton), Senator Anthony Cannella (Ceres) and Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen (Modesto) gathered alongside Gray to discuss expansion plans for the San Joaquin Intercity Passenger Rail Service (Amtrak) and the Altamont Corridor Express Rail service and listen to testimonials from county supervisors and interested parties throughout the area—including Bay Area commuters.

Discussion about expansion of the ACE train not only included extended opportunities for leisure travel, like to Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, home to the 49ers, but also how ACE train service in the Valley improve air quality, create jobs, promote private investment and provide key connections to future high-speed rail services.

“I’m a big supporter of these services, and it is so important to our entire community,” Olsen said. “I am personally invested in seeing this project come to fruition… improving and expanding our existing transit and rail services just makes sense.”

Support for the expansion project is crucial as that directly correlates with the funding needed to move forward.  Some of the goals for the ACE train expansion include improving connectivity with Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).  It also aims to run more frequent trains that will be more reliable, safer and faster, and support regional and state sustainability goals by placing new stations in existing downtown areas.

Vito Chiesa, Stanislaus County Supervisor, chair of the Stanislaus Council of Governments and board member of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, addressed the Assembly Select Committee with confidence during the hearing Friday.

“When I talk with high-speed rail proponents — and I’m not advocating for or against high-speed rail — I want to tell them that [the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority] has two systems that are already in place and if improved will serve as Northern California’s rail system,” Chiesa said. “We need to access the high-speed rail money; we can do it cheaper.  The reason we went to the joint powers authority is we figured we could do it better than Caltrans. We will prove we can do it better, there is no doubt with your help.  We’re on the same page and we’ve got good leadership leading the way.”

The overlying concern from the public was not whether or not there should be expansion in the rail system, but rather when the system would be in place.  Members of the public expressed frustration with the timeline and progress of the project.

“The overwhelming comments of everyone agreeing makes you wonder what is taking so long,” a Modesto resident said during the public comment section of the hearing. “We need to grab that AB 32 money that was specifically designed for projects like this that will take cars off the highway and that will improve our air quality here in this valley. We don’t need another regressive sales tax to fund this, we need AB 32; make the polluters pay.”

Olsen responded to the concern by highlighting the fact that funding is indeed the issue, but acknowledged that there is now a formalized San Joaquin Caucus where every republican and every democrat from SJ County to Kern County has agreed to be part of this effort.

“One of our priorities is to make sure that the funds that all of us who choose to call the Valley our home are paying into — various state programs including cap and trade, for example,” Olsen said, “we want to make sure that revenue goes in the areas of greatest need, both economically and in terms of air quality. 

Science has shown we have the worst air quality in the entire nation here in the San Joaquin Valley and we also have the highest rate of unemployment. We are working together to make sure that those dollars are directed towards the Valley instead of areas solely outside of the Valley—and the ACE train and the San Joaquin Rail Commission are the perfect projects that could be used for, so we’re working on it.”