FRESNO — The agency that operates commuter trains in the Bay Area has been selected by a consortium of Central Valley counties to orchestrate the transition of Amtrak service from the state Department of Transportation.
The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, representing 10 counties in the Central Valley and the East Bay, voted Friday to hire the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission to handle the takeover of Amtrak's San Joaquin trains, which run through the valley from Sacramento and Oakland in the north to Bakersfield in the south.
A formal contract for the transition is expected to be approved by the board of the newly formed San Joaquin JPA in September.
The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission operates the Altamont Commuter Express trains between Stockton and San Jose, and for months has been volunteering its staff to help the new valley joint powers group get started.
The Stockton-based SJRRC was chosen over a proposal by the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, which operates the BART commuter system throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. BART also provides day-to-day management for Amtrak's Capitol Corridor service between Sacramento and San Jose.
The SJRRC offered a three-year contract proposal for a price of about $3.5 million, compared with BART's contract proposal of more than $3.8 million, according to Rosa Park, deputy director of the Stanislaus Council of Governments and a member of a panel that screened the two bids.
Making rail policy
The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority was officially formed in March to take over the oversight and policy-making for the Amtrak San Joaquin Corridor. The corridor is one of the five busiest Amtrak lines in the nation, with more than 1.1 million passengers last year. The service has been under the control of Caltrans for years, and the state's subsidy of the San Joaquin trains amounted to about $90 million last year.
But leaders up and down the valley believe local control will foster improved service, even as Caltrans remains responsible for the financial subsidy.
Under Caltrans' management, the San Joaquin line grew from eight daily Amtrak passenger trains four northbound and four southbound in 1998 to 12 last year. During the same period, however, the Capitol Corridor line operated by a joint powers agency similar to the new San Joaquin Valley group increased its Amtrak service from eight daily trains to 32.
JPA members said they also want to ensure that Amtrak service to small towns up and down the valley remains vital and is not diminished as California works on developing a high-speed rail network connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, by way of the San Joaquin Valley.
"It's not a secret we've had about our relationship we've had with high-speed rail," said Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon, whose board is suing the California High-Speed Rail Authority to block its planned bullet-train system. "We look forward to protecting our Amtrak service in our community right now. That's our main focus, to enhance what we have now and make it better."