Another expansion of the Altamont Corridor Express — to Turlock and Merced County — got a key approval Friday.
The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission approved the final environmental report on the segment. That clears the way for detailed design and construction, which could have the first train running by 2025.
ACE has had weekday service between Stockton and San Jose since 1998, mainly carrying commuters to Bay Area jobs. Four trains run west in the morning and return in the late afternoon and evening.
The commission earlier approved a southward segment that will add stations by 2023 in the downtowns of Manteca, Ripon, Modesto and Ceres. Friday’s unanimous vote involved stations in Turlock, Livingston and Merced.
ACE also has approval for a northern branch by 2023, with stations west of Lodi, in Elk Grove and at four Sacramento-area sites.
All of this is funded by $900.5 million in state grants that also will upgrade Amtrak service between Stockton and Sacramento. The money comes from fuel taxes on drivers.
Business and other leaders endorsed the latest extension during Friday’s virtual meeting.
“We believe it’s going to energize the local economy and create jobs in a way that’s needed here,” said Micah Gallo, director of business affairs at the Atwater-area company that makes Joseph Farms cheese.
The commission is made up of elected leaders from San Joaquin and Alameda counties. They have worked with nearby counties to offer an alternative to the long commute on Interstates 205 and 580 and other roads.
ACE already has stations in Stockton, at the Manteca/Lathrop border and in Tracy, Livermore, Pleasanton, Fremont, Santa Clara and San Jose.
The extensions will use Union Pacific Railroad corridors, with double tracks added where needed to reduce conflict with freight trains. The route mostly parallels Highway 99 from Ripon to Merced.
ACE and Amtrak could feed as soon as 2029 into a Merced-Bakersfield segment of high-speed rail. That project continues to face criticism over cost over-runs and whether the Bay Area and Los Angeles should get the fast trains first.
Details on the ACE segment that advanced Friday:
Turlock’s platform will be across North Golden State Boulevard from the Roger K. Fall Transit Center, the hub for buses serving the city. Parking spaces and pedestrian access will be included.
Livingston’s platform will be downtown at Main and Court streets, with parking and pedestrian access.
The Merced platform will be downtown at 15th and R streets, with parking and pedestrian access. This area also will get a layover yard for ACE trains and eventually perhaps a high-speed rail station.
The commission decided against a station in downtown Atwater. At the city’s request, it could be reconsidered in the future.
Friday’s vote completed an environmental review launched in June 2020. The commission will now move into detailed design, including tracks, stations and other features. The goal is four round trips a day by 2027.
The planners have a long-term vision of making ACE more than a commuter line. The trains would run frequently during much of the day and tie in with other rail systems.
The Amtrak upgrades are on the San Joaquin line, which runs mainly between Bakersfield and Oakland and also has trains to Sacramento. The upcoming work will add two round trips to the capital, with stations shared with ACE.