Riverbank might compete with Modesto for Stanislaus County's only high-speed rail station.
Bullet trains passing through the county from Sacramento to Merced could be years or perhaps decades away, but officials will hear comments and opinions from future riders at a public workshop Thursday.
Also in question is whether the line should pass through downtown Modesto, as preferred by city leaders, or by the Amtrak station east of town.
Riverbank City Council members Monday will review whether to challenge Modesto's presumed lock on the only station between Stockton and Merced. If the council agrees, leaders would make Riverbank's pitch at Thursday's hearing.
"I think it's very feasible, it would make a lot of sense and truly could be a regional hub not just for Riverbank but for the whole area," Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño said.
The possibility of a contest hinges on which of the county's railroads ultimately are preferred by state rail authorities. And that might depend heavily on how each meets the needs of high-speed rail not here, but in other counties to the south: Decisions over which lines to use in Fresno and Merced counties might dictate which railroad right of way is chosen for Stanislaus County.
The Riverbank-Modesto competition could arise only if rail authorities approve the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe line running east of Modesto, with an Amtrak stop near the end of Briggsmore Avenue. That line continues north through Riverbank, which had an Amtrak station until 1999.
Downtown depot in place
Modesto City Council members are lobbying for alignment on a Union Pacific line running downtown. Years ago, the city built a depot used by buses and taxis. The depot could serve trains as well because it's right next to Union Pacific tracks.
The council unanimously threw support to that line last week, saying bullet train passengers could play a role in continuing efforts for downtown revitalization.
Riverbank, which sprung up next to a railroad, finished a $9 million upgrade to its downtown four months ago and envisions shopping, offices, a plaza and maybe a sports complex on a former cannery site nearby. A depot on the line that used to serve the cannery could deposit passengers in the middle of the new development, officials say.
"Riverbank was the center of the railroad in Stanislaus County for a long, long time," City Manager Rich Holmer said. "We want to see that continue."
Madueño said passengers she's picked up at Modesto's Amtrak depot complain about its remote location. "They say it's off the beaten path and there is nowhere they can walk to — no restaurants or shops, nothing."
Central location touted
Modesto Councilman Garrad Marsh said downtown Modesto is much more central to most of the county's residents, including its three largest cities — Modesto, Turlock and Ceres — as well as the county's West Side communities. The Union Pacific line roughly parallels Highway 99, the valley's motor vehicle backbone.
"In order to achieve the highest ridership and reduce the most automobile trips, passenger rail should be located in areas having the highest population density, most densely connected circulation system and the most destinations," a Modesto report reads.
County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who serves on a regional rail committee, said: "Competition probably is not bad, but I have a feeling we won't be deciding which line is used." Still, people should make their opinions known and Thursday is the right time to do so, he and Marsh said.
Modesto also remains in the running for a stop on a possible extension of the Altamont Commuter Express rail coming from the Bay Area with its current terminus in Stockton. Riverbank could make a play for that line as well, if the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe right of way is chosen.
Although the high-speed line from Sacramento to Merced is the state's last in terms of planning and public hearings, regional transportation leaders appear to be making efforts to catch up.
Members of the Stanislaus Council of Government's policy board last week approved a memorandum of understanding regarding high-speed rail efforts, joining several agencies. "We want to formalize our relationship to show we are all committed to working collaboratively," said StanCOG's Vince Harris, who attended a California Senate rail hearing on Tuesday.
The 110-mile line from Sacramento to Merced could take 43 minutes and cost $25 per ticket, according to preliminary estimates.
On the Net: www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov.
Monday's Riverbank City Council meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in the council chamber, 6707 Third St.
Thursday's high-speed rail scoping session is scheduled for 3 to 7 p.m. at Modesto Centre Plaza, 1000 L St. Comments can be sent, by Feb. 26, to email@example.com or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, 925 L St., Suite 1425, Sacramento, 95814.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.