STOCKTON - Improvements to the local rail system could cut travel times between Stockton and San Jose in half, expand commuter rail to Sacramento and Modesto and make San Joaquin County a regional link to the proposed state bullet train.
The Altamont Corridor Rail Project is still in the nascent planning stages, but transportation officials say it is in a good position to connect into the proposed California high-speed rail system, which has been touted as an environmentally friendly and fast way to connect northern and southern California.
The connector project, if realized, would mean more than reduced travel times for the Altamont Commuter Express trains. It also would mean less chance for delays by putting the commuter system on tracks not shared with freight trains.
A "super ACE" could also piggyback on the main high-speed rail spine from Sacramento to points south, possibly hitting cities such as Lodi or Elk Grove, where the bullet train isn't scheduled to stop.
"It will ultimately lead to the implementation of a world-class railroad," said Dan Leavitt, deputy director of the California High Speed Rail Authority.
Leavitt and others were on hand at an open house Thursday in downtown Stockton as part of the environmental review process and an early way for the public to get involved in the process.
Stockton is one of the stopping points for the main high-speed line. For the Altamont project at this point, neither the exact route nor the stops along the way have been determined. But Tracy and Stockton were among the two possible stops. Study and design is expected to take years, and construction could begin in 2015, if it has funding, according to rail officials.
More commuter routes means more riders, more trains and more flexibility for those - commuters or not - considering the train instead of driving, said Brian Schmidt, director of planning and programming for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which owns and operates ACE.
"The more flexibility you give people, the more likely they are to choose the (rail) system," he said.
Last year, voters approved a $10 billion bond measure to pay for a state high-speed rail system. Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, authored legislation that opened up the Altamont Pass corridor to high-speed rail funding. Also, a request for money to study the new corridor is among a long list of requests from California for a piece of $8 billion in federal economic stimulus money available for high-speed rail transportation.
The trains traveling through the pass would eventually change, said project manager Brent Ogden, vice president of Oakland's AECOM. They would range from lightweight diesel locomotives to electric trains to full-fledged, high-speed trains, which are also electric, he said. However the high-speed trains won't be able to reach their top speeds - which exceed 200 miles per hour - along the Altamont route.
San Joaquin County has always been the connecting point between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area, said Andrew Chesley, executive director of the San Joaquin Council of Governments, the regional transportation authority. The Altamont project makes sense and he said it is likely it will get the needed funding.
"I think the Altamont is as sure a thing as the High Speed Rail Authority has," he said. "This could be as important to San Joaquin County as (Interstate 5) was in the 1960s and '70s."
Contact reporter Zachary K. Johnson at (209) 546-8258 or email@example.com.