The long-anticipated Altamont Corridor Express train connection to Merced recently reached a new milestone, bringing the project another step closer to fruition. Last month, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission released a draft environmental report outlining details of the planned ACE Ceres–Merced Extension Project.
Once completed, the Merced region will be connected via rail with the Bay Area and the Sacramento airport. “It’s a phenomenal project,” said Merced Mayor Matt Serratto. “You can go straight to a 49ers game on that train.” The Ceres-Merced Extension is part of the Valley Rail Program — a larger vision of several ACE extensions north and south. Three other ACE-related Valley Rail projects are currently in development to expand the ACE service.
Eventually, the project will link ACE with future high-speed rail trains in Merced, thus integrating rail service into a unified northern California rail network promoted by Gov. Gavin Newsom. A Merced-to-Bakersfield high-speed rail line could be completed by 2029. “We’re very excited about bringing ACE down the Valley . . . Merced is going to be a really, really important hub for rail in the future,” said Dan Leavitt, ACE manager of regional initiatives.
The railway, Serratto said, will help streamline the city’s broader visions for developing downtown Merced, long-term economic growth, and bolstering tourism. ACE train service at new stations in Merced, Livingston, or Atwater, and Turlock may kick off operations as early as 2025, according to the environmental report. Expansion to Ceres and Sacramento County could be ready earlier, by 2023. Before any building begins, the final environmental report will be published and certified by the end of the year. Construction is projected to start in 2022 and wrap up in 2024.
The project will result in 26 miles of new track, three stations, infrastructure upgrades, and a 140,000-square-foot downtown Merced maintenance and layover facility. The facility would support train layovers, storage, maintenance, and extension operations. The downtown Merced facility is especially exciting to local officials. The biggest thing about the project overall, Serratto said, is the jobs that the facility will bring to the Merced area. “We would anticipate jobs being created there,” said ACE marketing manager David Lipari. “All these activities really create an industry here in the Valley.” The Merced station would be built downtown between R and O streets and include 380 parking spots.
Livingston is, at this point, the recommended location for a second Merced County station over Atwater. But a final decision between the two cities won’t be made until public comments are considered. “Certainly, this is a case where it’s a difficult decision to make,” Leavitt said. “Both the communities saw the value to having an ACE station.” If Livingston is picked over Atwater, it would be constructed downtown, northeast of the Main Street grade crossing. Construction of the new ACE branches, as well as Amtrak expansion between Stockton and Sacramento, is paid for via a pair of state fuel-tax-funded grants totaling $900 million.
When the project finishes, Merced-area passengers riding for business or pleasure will board two-story trains furnished with comfortable seating, ample electrical plugs, WiFi, and bike parking, Lipari said. The public can review the report and provide comments through June 7. In addition to enhancing regional connectivity, Lipari said the increased train service would help the Valley’s rising population of residents get conveniently to and from work — without adding more polluting single-passenger vehicles to already traffic-congested roads.
Merced County and the City of Merced, in particular, have each recently been distinguished as hot spots of population growth. Meanwhile, many California cities outside of the Valley and the state overall are seeing residents leave. “As our communities continue to grow, we need to become better at planning our transportation outside of expanding highway capacity,” Lipari said. “It (the train) is a clean, efficient way to get to work.” Going to work has taken on a new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many employees still working from home rather than commuting to offices. Ridership on both ACE and Amtrak trains plunged as low as 5%, and some commuter services were cut. While numbers are now steadily increasing, there is still a long way to go to reach normal passenger levels. Reaching that threshold largely depends on when employers and counties still promoting remote work policies revert to in-office work. But a recent survey of over 500 passengers showed that 92% intend to return to riding the train once they also return to in-person work, Lipari said.