Merced’s high-speed rail plans back on track

A resident looks at cards with different land uses Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at the Merced Senior Community center during a planning workshop on the future high-speed rail stop in town.
A resident looks at cards with different land uses Tuesday, June 28, 2016, at the Merced Senior Community center during a planning workshop on the future high-speed rail stop in town.

Residents and others interested in Merced’s future gathered Tuesday to discuss what they’d like to see surrounding the high-speed rail stop in Merced, which is set to open in 2025.

After a few months of uncertainty in the spring, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority plucked Merced’s stop from the initial stages and then put it back in, the planning is back on track, according to Frank Quintero, Merced’s director of economic development.

Tuesday’s meeting at the Merced Senior Community Center was the second in town and built off of what residents shared in a meeting in February, he said. The authority is handling designs for the station and the tracks, but residents get a say in what kind of housing, retail, office and other spaces should go up around the station.

Arlis Bortner, 45, of Le Grand attended the workshop and said he hoped the area around the station would make Merced more of destination for travelers. Around the Merced County Fairgrounds, for example, the planning should make room for hotels, and sports and concert venues to attract visitors.

He said Merced-area residents are quick to go out of town for entertainment and the rail planning could help change that. “Merced’s a great place ... but it just seems (other cities) are getting more than we have,” he said. “I want this to be more of a destination.”

I want this to be more of a destination.

Arlis Bortner, 45, of Le Grand, on Merced’s rail stop

The 520-mile rail system is to be finished in 2028 at a cost of $68 billion. Work has begun along the tracks in parts of the Central Valley such as Fresno and about 116 miles of contracts have been assigned, according to officials with the authority.

The workshop broke the area around the station into six sectors and people discussed them in small groups. They debated where the public buildings should be, what types of housing belonged and how high the structure should grow, among other topics.

Pedro Guzman, who was also at the meeting, said he sees the rail as a “great opportunity” for change in Merced. The 57-year-old lives in San Jose but has invested in Merced property for the past 12 years.

He noted the rail is supposed to make the trip from San Jose to Merced into 45 minutes of travel. “Theoretically I could live in Merced and work in San Jose or L.A. and it’s doable,” he said, adding people would spend their money in Merced.

He went on to say people at the meeting agreed certain landmarks and historic buildings in downtown need protection, but the area has room to grow.

That’s the exciting thing about it.

Pedro Guzman, 57, on the potential for the train to move commuters

A sheet of paper posted on the wall asked workshop-goers to give the rail a slogan. One read “Gateway to the Future,” which is not far from Merced’s “Gateway to Yosemite” slogan. There were several more ideas, including “Hub of the Golden State.”

The meeting was conducted through planners from Hatch Mott MacDonald, the consulting firm hired by the city. Richard Davies, project manager with the firm, said planners have also met with bicycle advocates.

Two more workshops are planned, according to planners, with the next likely in August. Each meeting will get more specific about land use, according to Davies.

“The idea is to get a number of alternatives that will go to the planning commission and ultimately the City Council,” he said.

Davies stressed that convenience for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians is the most important part of getting people to use the train station.

“They’ve got to work,” he said. “It’s got to be comfortable.”

Thaddeus Miller: 209-385-2453, @thaddeusmiller