Maybe being dead-last on a priority list was a blessing in disguise.
Thursday's high-speed rail open house in Modesto trailed all others in California. But it came on the heels of President Barack Obama's State of the Union bullet-train booster the night before, when he announced that California would get $2.3 billion of the $8 billion available in federal stimulus money for such projects.
Talk of the award buzzed Thursday around a room filled with maps, charts and 130 people at Modesto Centre Plaza. Several said the federal government's largesse is the most solid evidence so far that 220-mph trains zipping from Sacramento to Southern California to the Bay Area are more than just a dream.
"I think it should have been done 20 years ago, if not 40," said Richard Anderson, a retired microbiology instructor who likes the clean-energy promise of electric trains. "If we can't make it happen now, we may not be able to ever."
Brent Ogden, project manager for the Sacramento-to-Merced segment passing through Stanislaus County, acknowledged that California had asked for $4.7 billion. "We got 50 cents on the dollar, which is twice as much as anyone else," he said. "How's that for a positive way of looking at it?"
Rail officials were hungry Thursday for comments on whether the high-speed line should pass through downtown Modesto, as the city's officials hope, or near the Amtrak rail east of town, which could put Riverbank in a position to vie for a potentially lucrative station.
Riverbank City Manager Rich Holmer hand-delivered the resolution passed Monday by his City Council members, urging consideration for a depot at the City of Action's former Sun Garden-Gangi tomato cannery.
"We believe it's an excellent location," Holmer said. Riverbank lost its Amtrak station to Modesto in 1999.
Some area leaders had believed the decision might depend on similarly competing rails in counties to the south. But Ogden noted Thursday that those lines converge in Merced and again near Stockton, so the choice in Stanislaus County "can be made independently," he said.
However, the Stanislaus County choice could be influenced from another direction. Improvements to the Altamont Commuter Express rail from the Bay Area to Stockton someday could include a spur to Modesto, and tying to the downtown line would save several miles of track.
"We want to get this resolved as quickly as possible," Ogden said. An analysis of the alternatives could be published within six months, he said; the California High-Speed Rail Authority could act on final environmental documents in 2013, according to a chart.
Ogden explained that high-speed tracks would not replace the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail to Modesto's east, nor the Union Pacific line through downtown, but likely would run near whichever right-of-way is chosen. That strategy is easier than charting a new path bisecting farms and homes, he said.
Nor would bullet trains stop at downtown Modesto's bus depot alongside existing tracks. A new depot stretching at least two city blocks would be built to the west, if that line is chosen, requiring an elevated walkway passengers could use to reach downtown on foot, Ogden said.
If the authority prefers the downtown line, it likely would run on an elevated track to avoid conflicts with ground traffic. The Stanislaus depot would be the only stop from Stockton to Merced.
Rails cost $50 million to $60 million per mile across regular ground. The price climbs to about $100 million for elevated track and to more than $200 million for underground track.
Thursday's open house attracted officials from many area agencies as well as special interest representatives. Former Modesto Councilman Denny Jackman, now chairman of the Farmland Working Group, engaged in a lively discussion with Farm Bureau leaders on whether rail projects encourage growth.
Residents were sprinkled among those wearing badges.
"I think the dynamics are extremely fascinating," said Ken Gross of Ceres. "From the fun side, a trip to Disneyland is cut in half."
Irene Pedersen, who came from Europe 40 years ago, said she became accustomed to rail as a child in Denmark. "I think we're so far behind (in the United States), it's not funny," she said.
Comments can be sent, by Feb. 26, to firstname.lastname@example.org. gov or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, 925 L St., Suite 1425, Sacramento 95814.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.