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County commuters could soon commute by trains

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Posted: Friday, March 7, 2003 10:00 pm

Two regional rail systems are courting San Joaquin County.

While one is fully committed, the other is just batting its eyelashes at Central Valley commuters.

The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which runs the Altamont Commuter Express from Stockton to San Jose, recently approved a five-year plan to study the creation of a rail line from Merced to Sacramento with a transfer platform built around Lathrop.

It trains would also stop at Lodi's downtown railroad station.

Meanwhile, Bay Area Rapid Transit officials are talking about linking services to Tracy, but there is no formal plan in place at this time, just a study.

"Lodi citizens could take advantage of riding commuter services to jobs in Merced or Sacramento," said Phil Pennino, former Lodi mayor and also a former rail commission member.

An option other than driving sounded pretty good to commuters gassing up at the Safeway gas depot on 11th Street in Tracy on Friday.

Tracy resident and retired contractor Cary Carrillo said he used BART frequently when he lived in Union City and worked in Oakland.

"It was great," he said. "I'm retired now, but I feel for people like my kid, going from Manteca to Fremont every day."

And, he said, gas prices make the idea more palatable to anyone at the moment. "I'm driving one of the most expensive gas users," he said, filling up a Chevrolet Yukon SUV. "You look at these prices?"

Cheryl Gilliam, a hairdresser in Castro Valley, said she, too, liked the idea of a BART extension to Tracy. Her business in that East Bay city, she said, is a short walk from the light-rail station there.

She said she didn't use BART when she lived in San Ramon, before she moved to Tracy four years ago. "I saw it as a way to get to San Francisco," she said. "Now it would be an economical way to do things."

Like Carrillo, she saw the idea as especially logical in the face of soaring gas prices. "I wonder if that was why they started talking about it," she said, with a smile.

For Tracy commuters, the possibility of expanding BART services into the area makes the idea of hitching a ride aboard that service from downtown to the Bay Area closer to becoming reality.

And the timing is right, said Tracy City Councilwoman Suzanne Tucker.

"Transportation is a major concern in Tracy," she said. "It's a bad commute these days to the Bay Area, and it's not getting any better."

Also, rail service means less time spent idling in cars on freeways. Fewer cars equal less particulate matter in the already smoggy Valley air. For landowners, having BART in the neighborhood equates to higher property values. It could also lead to further population growth.

But convenience and cleanliness come with price tags steeper than the Altamont hills.

Kim Heinrich, senior management assistant at the commission, said the plan might run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, but a firm amount has not been identified yet.

The $200,000 feasibility study will determine if the line is needed, she said.

One factor the ACE group has going for it is to use existing Union Pacific Railway tracks on the new line.

"That's what the ACE line uses going into San Jose," said Heinrich.

The study will also look at how the line will get funded. Options include splitting the costs between the counties involved in the new line, and applying for state and federal money.

The new line would most likely connect with ACE trains at a transfer platform built around Lathrop.

BART's push into the county won't be as easy or as cheap, said BART spokesman Mike Healy.

"It's going to cost big money," he said.

And there are many other factors to look at.

"Right-of way is one question: Does it exist? Could rails be purchased?" he asked.

The current idea of running BART through downtown Tracy could lead to tearing up heavily used roads along with millions of dollars in upgrades. Then there is getting through the Altamont hills which will require the use of diesel fueled engines, although they tend to cost less money to produce than electric ones.

Also, Healy said, before the company gets serious about Tracy, it must figure out when service will be expanded to Livermore.

"Expanding into Tracy is just a conceptual idea," Healy said.

But San Joaquin County is on the radar screen. A $500,000 feasibility study is in the works and will look at right-of-way issues, and potential riders. The state is funding the study, Healy said.

"It's just a huge process," he said. "We know that some people come in from Tracy, although it's probably a small percentage of the total usage."

But San Joaquin County residents should be prepared to pay at least a few billion dollars for such a rail service if Santa Clara is any model of how BART service is funded.

The South Bay Area county is scheduled to link 22 miles of track to BART at the tune of $4 billion - all of which will get funded by the county taxpayers through sales tax.

That's a big issue with San Joaquin Supervisor Leroy Ornellas, of Tracy.

"I would not want us to get in a situation like Contra Costa County where the sales tax has been raised to pay for BART service and they still don't have the system," Ornellas said.

Ornellas also wondered if having BART coming to the Central Valley would impede San Joaquin County's ability to attract industries that provide high-paying jobs.

"We don't want businesses to think we don't need to bring those jobs into the Valley if they have BART," Ornellas said.

On the positive side, BART has the potential to alleviate congestion and it could give his constituents door-to-door transportation to pro sport and entertainment events, Ornellas said.

"It's a wonderful system - and not just for commuters. It opens it up to everyone," he said.

He also agrees that long commute times are a mounting issue in the county.

"There are something like 60,000 cars per day coming all the way from Stockton to travel over the Altamont."

Statistics show that commuting time in the county has increased dramatically. San Joaquin County commuters' one-way travel time is 29 minutes, ranking it the seventh longest in the nation's 280 metropolitan areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The proposed blueprint would have BART trains running from Tracy on existing tracks into the Tri-Valley area and on to the Livermore station.

The line would end at the Pleasanton station where riders could transfer from there to ride the system into the bigger Bay Area cities.

Currently, many Tracy commuters drive to the Pleasanton station to meet a train.

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