MODESTO — The Central Valley is on the cusp of forming a regional rail authority with a goal of taking control from the state over Amtrak commuter trains.
Five transportation agencies, including those in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties, signed on in December. That's one shy of the required six to officially form a joint powers authority; a single positive vote among four in January and February would seal the deal.
So sure are leaders of a sixth partner joining that the future authority has scheduled a March 22 public kickoff meeting in Merced.
Local control could "result in improved service and increases in ridership and revenue," Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh wrote in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown. Marsh predicted more jobs and better air quality with improved train service.
Modesto, Denair and Merced depots carry people to Sacramento, the Bay Area and Bakersfield with connections to buses and other trains far beyond.
Amtrak's San Joaquin Corridor has thrived under the California Department of Transportation's rail administration, growing from eight trains per day in 1998 to 12 last year, when annual ridership pushed past 1 million. The line is Amtrak's fifth busiest in the United States.
An encouraging model
Amtrak's Capitol Corridor line from Sacramento to Oakland skyrocketed 400 percent in the same time frame, from eight daily trains to 32. That's because a nimble consortium of Sacramento-area rail leaders wrested control from the state and became more responsive to travelers' needs, say valley officials who hope to do the same.
"We're trying to improve commuter service," said Vito Chiesa, a Stanislaus County supervisor recently chosen to represent this area on the soon-to-form San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority. The idea is to boost seats, trains and efficiency, he said.
A rail plan for the next 20 years shows that state Caltrans leaders, focused on highways, expect to add only three trains on the San Joaquin line. Local leaders say they could easily exceed such a short-sighted goal, maybe tripling the current number.
"Local control is supposed to translate to cost savings," said Charlie Goeken, Waterford's mayor and chairman of the Stanislaus Council of Governments. "We'll be able to set rates and times that will meet our customers' needs, and we'll be more profitable."
The authority would have to prove that the change won't cost local taxpayers, according to legislation carried by former Assemblywoman and now state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani that was signed by Brown in September. He signed a law enabling a similar transfer of control for California's third intercity Amtrak system, the Pacific Surfliner, which goes from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Los Angeles.
The state's $90 million annual support of the San Joaquin Corridor would continue.
Stanislaus' alternate to Chiesa is Modesto Councilman Joe Muratore. Representing Merced County is Supervisor John Pedrozo, and Lodi Councilman Bob Johnson will cover San Joaquin County.
Transportation agencies in Sacramento and Contra Costa counties have joined, while others in Alameda, Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties have yet to vote.
Those in Kings and Kern counties -- where opposition to high-speed rail runs high -- may not go along, but their participation is not required.
Link to high-speed rail
The Amtrak push is not directly related to high-speed rail, although that system would lean on regional commuter rail to feed bullet trains.
"Having a better, more robust rail system is a good thing" for both systems, said Dan Leavitt of the San Joaquin Rail Commission. That agency serves as temporary staff for the valley effort, until the partners select a managing agency to assume control from Caltrans.
The state would retain responsibility for coordinating with other transportation modes. "They're not being pushed out; it's being made into a more successful partnership," Leavitt said.
The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority's inaugural meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. March 22 in the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St., Merced.
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Modesto Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.