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Turlock could be stop on new commuter rail system
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Whoever came up with the phrase “out with the old and in with the new” never thought of recycling their resources. Fortunately, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission is developing plans to do just that and could potentially utilize land recently purchased for Turlock’s Regional Transit Center and other resources to implement a commuter rail service connecting Modesto, Turlock and Merced to the Bay Area.

Turlock has always had a progressive stance in shaping its economy. In 1871, Turlock was known as a “railroad town,” and just another station off the Central Pacific Railroad. By February 1908, the small town grew in agricultural relevancy thanks to Turlock’s freight train service that continues to transport necessities to this day.

As of now, Turlock is hoping that commuter trains will be the next big push towards advancing the economy. The city has reason to be optimistic about commuter rail as the importance of freight and passenger rail to America’s transportation system and the economy was the focus of the first hearing of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials under Chairman Jeff Denham (R-Turlock).

“I feel that the railways are one of our best opportunities to get people to commute,” said Denham shortly before the Tuesday meeting. “We want to get people off the freeways and stop the congestion.”

For the past four years, Turlock has worked with the Central Valley Regional Rail Committee— a consortium of transit agencies, cities, counties, and councils of governments coordinated by the San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Commission — to look at potential options for extending rail service to Stanislaus County. 

Deputy Director of Development Services and Planning Manager for the City of Turlock, Debbie Whitmore, who serves on this committee for the city, has worked on other commuter rail systems — most notably the Southern California Metro Link system — and agreed that there must be another way of commuting residents to their jobs without wasting resources. At a recent meeting, she learned of the Rail Commission’s plans to bring commuter rail to Modesto by 2015, and to Turlock and Merced by 2022.

“A lot of folks who live in Turlock and surrounding communities work in the Bay Area,” she said. “We  have invested considerable time in  finding transportation options for our residents and businesses.  Turlock originally started as a rail town and has a vibrant rail history. Adding a commuter rail option will not only relieve traffic congestion but could help to support residential and job growth in downtown and generally promote economic development in the city.”

Earlier this month, the Turlock City Council approved the purchase of two parcels of land adjoining the Regional Transit Center at a price point of 18 percent over appraisal. The two parcels, located off N. Golden State Boulevard and Hawkeye Avenue, were purchased as part of a second phase of development for the Regional Transit Center.  The recently adopted General Plan identifies this location as one of two potential locations for a future rail station, if additional funding was obtained.

“We anticipated this in our general plan,” Whitmore said. “But a great deal of planning still needs to be done to determine the exact location, design, and cost of a Turlock station. Modesto recently completed their station feasibility study. A similar study will need to be done in Turlock. We will have to make sure the station location works for everyone.”

Unlike the High Speed Rail Project, which is intended to support passengers traveling between  longer distances with fewer stops in between, the ACE train system intends to incorporate more stops to service more cities for commuting purposes.

“High Speed Rail is a very long way off,” Whitmore said.” The Merced to Sacramento segment, which is part of a second phase, is not even funded at this point. What we are hearing from the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission is that commuter rail is much more realistic, in the short term.”

Modesto has already begun the station planning process and has worked with businesses, property owners and local officials to identify a location and projected cost for a passenger or a high speed rail station in the downtown area. It took more than a year to get through the station planning process, which was funded through a Caltrans Planning grant.

Modesto is starting to talk about specific “seed funding” as part of the regional transportation planning process currently underway by the Stanislaus Council of Governments to demonstrate local support for the extension of commuter rail service to Stanislaus County.  Modesto could be scheduled for station construction as early as 2015.

According to Whitmore, the Rail Commission’s proposal would resemble a triangle that connects Merced and Sacramento to the Bay Area allowing commuters to travel from the Stanislaus area to Sacramento or the Bay Area as well as connect to the planned high speed rail station in Merced.