Commentary, Reports

San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee takes stand on Closing the HSR Gap

January 26 Meeting Report by Mike Barnbaum, RailPAC Associate Director
Part 1 of 2 reports from that day. Headlines:

    SJVRC Passes Resolution Supporting Closure of the Southern Gap
    Caltrans’ Bill Bronte drops a bombshell
    SJVRC is urged to revive the idea of a JPA for the Corridor

Rail was all over the Northern California Map on Thursday the 26th of January as both the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee held its quarterly meeting at the Castle Air Conference Center in Atwater, and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority held its final Draft Business Plan Update Workshop for FY’s 2012-2013 & 2013-2014 onboard Train #538 between Richmond & Sacramento. This writer attended both meetings and found out some interesting news on station facilities, budgets & staffing, as well as service changes that have occurred and will be occurring. Enjoy the reading, as there is much to cover through this electronic communication including an entire resolution on the Bakersfield – Los Angeles Gap Closure.

The San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee was called to order by 10:50am with roll being called and a quorum being established. After the Pledge of Allegiance and the adoption of the minutes of the last meeting, the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee passed a resolution supporting Railroad Safety and Passenger Rail Improvement Projects. It was after this resolution that the Gap Closure Items were called by Chair John Pedrozo of Merced County and an interesting discussion took place. The discussion first surrounded around an Ad-Hoc Committee consisting of a dozen or more people of a study done by the California Department of Transportation Division of Rail (CalTrans Division of Rail). Many speakers spoke their piece about the work of the Ad-Hoc Committee including Stacey Mortensen of San Joaquin County, Matt Machado of Stanislaus County, and Angelo Lamas of Merced County. Howard Abelson of Conta Costa County asked Stacey Mortensen about a “Plan B” if the High Speed Rail does not go through. Stacey mentioned that there is one developing in the works and that a report back to the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee is coming. Bob Snoddy of Kern County mentioned on going work that work get “incremental” improvements to Metrolink service based in Southern California that would bring Metrolink to Bakersfield. Bruce Heard of Los Angeles County Agreed to Bob Snoody’s statements, as did Supervisor Dave Rodgers of Madera County. The vote was called for with Dave Rodgers making the motion and Bruce Heard seconding the motion. It passed unanimously and reads as follows:

Resolution Supporting Closure of the Passenger Rail Gap Between Bakersfield and Los Angeles Stations

    WHEREAS, the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee (SJVRC) was created by the California State Legislature to advise CalTrans, Amtrak, federal governments and their rail agencies on behalf of the thirteen counties served by Amtrak’s San Joaquin Service – being Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare Counties; and,

    WHEREAS, the mission of the Committee in providing such advice is to promote ridership on San Joaquin trains connecting the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California via the San Joaquin Valley and to monitor and suggest legislation pertinent to passenger rail and the San Joaquin train service to state and federal representatives; and,

    WHEREAS, the San Joaquin Corridor is the 5th busiest corridor compared to other Amtrak passenger rail corridors nationwide and California passenger riders represent approximately 20% of the total passenger rail travelers nationwide; and,

    WHEREAS, the SJVRC recognizes the vital importance and reliability of the Bakersfield to Southern California bus links to the San Joaquin Corridor, the SJVRC acknowledges that, through customer satisfaction surveys, riders have listed the bus segment as the least desirable portion of their trip; and,

    WHEREAS, the SJVRC concurs with the two largest passenger rail advocacy groups in the state, Train Riders Association of California (TRAC) and Rail Passengers Association of California (RailPAC), along with many other advocates and analysts, who observe that by far the most valuable addition to the state’s passenger rail infrastructure would be a rail link that close the generation’s old “gap” between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

    BE IT NOW THEREFORE RESOLVED that on this day, January 26, 2012, the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee strongly recommends that the development/construction of a passenger rail link between the Bakersfield and Los Angeles stations be of the highest priority for the installation of any state wide rail system, whether this be high speed rail or conventional rail.

    I, JOHN PEDROZO, Chair of the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee, do hereby certify that the forgoing resolution was regularly introduced, passed, and adopted by said Committee at a regular meeting thereof held on the 26th day of January 2012 by a unanimous vote.

The meeting continued after the “Gap Closure” Resolution passed by unanimous vote with Yosemite Area Regional Transit System General Manager, Dick Whittington making a presentation about ridership and park visitation to Yosemite National Park. The YARTS Service runs from Merced to Yosemite year-round with a Summer Seasonal Extension to Mammoth Mountain in MONO County. Dick mentioned that 700,000 people visited Yosemite National Park in July as well as August of 2011. These were record numbers for park visitation. It was mentioned that Amtrak Ridership and YARTS ridership is up, as well as park visitation. The only concern in the presentation is that Amtrak Thruway ridership is down. When discussion took place, Ty Holscher of Tulare County asked whether it would be possible to ban cars altogether to/from Yosemite. Whittington mentioned that that idea is in the park plan, but park management does not think it’s feasable for now. Andrew Felden of Amtrak and Amtrak Thruway Bus Operations, based in Sacramento, mentioned that he heard of some information that is coming in regards to some joint marketing with Amtrak, CalTrans, and National Parks that may include a promotion.

Amtrak Government Affairs made a presentation that was given by Alex Khalfin of the Port of Oakland. In his summary there was a lowlight, for lack of a better word, that included the following in the printed report:

On November 18, 2011, the President signed into law H.R. 2112, the “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2012.” H.R. 2112 includes funding for Amtrak for the current fiscal year at $1.418 billion, including $466 million for operating, $616 million for capital, and $271 million for debt service. This represents the lowest federal appropriation for Amtrak since FY08, and the second year in a row in which Amtrak has received less than the previous year.

For the Federal Fiscal Year 2011, that ended back on September 30, 2011, San Joaquin ridership was 1,067,441 (+9.2%); passenger revenue was $35,704,109 (+13.9%); endpoint OTP was 89.5%. The + percentages in parenthesis representa the increase over the previous Federal Fiscal Year.

In the State Budget Presentation, Bill Bronte delivered a “bombshell” to the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee. As proposed, the Governor’s January Budget Proposal would virtually wipe out the people in the Division of Rail. The nineteen people today in Operations, Marketing, and Planning would be forced to lose fifteen people. The five people in marketing would be cut to just one and the three in rail operations would be cut to just one. There is a “Walking of the Halls” event in Sacramento scheduled for Thursday the 16th day of February 2012 to stop this part of the budget proposal from going through as well as an educational effort and awareness campaign making legislators aware of AmtrakCalifornia and its success in California with Amtrak as the chosen operator.

The good news from Bill Bronte is that AmtrakCalifornia is now positioned to go after Federal Funding, thanks in large part because capital programming has been done on several projects throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Work is ongoing, mainly through Positive Train Control, better known as PTC, to see that each trip can go 90mph. The improved speeds, will soon allow for planning of the next roundtrip, and hopefully get up to 11 roundtrips in the Valley. Both Bill Bronte of CalTrans and Anthony Chapa of Amtrak mentioned a piece about the upcoming delivery of “Comet” Cars. These cars were previously used by New Jersey Transit and will most likely be on the San Joaquin by Labor Day 2012. This, in the interim, will increase train lengths and provide a benefit for both the Capitol Corridor as well as the San Joaquin.

Andrew Felden of Amtrak and Alan Miller of CalTrans talked about upcoming Thruway Bus Activities and service changes on the Pacific Surfliner Line that has benefits for folks riding Amtrak in the San Joaquin Valley.

A new contract was awarded to Coach America with new buses on the way. The new buses will have Power Outlets, Tables, and Wireless Fidelity, better referred to as Wi-Fi. Three routes will be tested in selling E-Tickets as soon as the E-Ticketing Program is rolled out on Amtrak Trains. Those routes operate between Stackton and Redding, Sacramento and Sparks or South Lake Tahoe, as well as Emeryville to San Francisco. Other routes will come online afterwards. In May, with the new aligned tracks coming online at Sacramento Valley Station, more time will be given to all Thruway Services so as to allow passengers the time needed to walk to/from the new train platforms. This will likely occur over the Weekend of National Train Day, which according to is scheduled for Saturday the 12th day of May, 2012. Since most schedule changes on Amtrak occur on Monday, rather than on Sunday, as is the case with Transit Operators like the Sacramento Regional Transit District, the AmtrakCalifornia service changes and new tracks will likely become available to riders beginning no later than Monday the 14th day of May 2012, but no earlier than Monday the 7th day of May 2012. If there is going to be any grand opening celebration of this magnitude at the Sacramento Valley Station commemorating the opening of the new train tracks, event organizers will need to make sure that any elected officials and/or other dignitaries have their calendar cleared in May through the 14th, and for sure on National Train Day itself, the 12th day of May 2012.

Last but not least, Stacey Mortensen asked for an item to come back regarding pursuing legislation in Sacramento that would provide the San Joaquin with JPA Powers and Authority. It was mentioned, by Stacey that folks in the LOS-SAN Corridor in Southern California are pursuing such a matter that is modeled after what is in place to day at the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority in Northern California.

With this request, the meeting adjourned with a reminder from new Chair Vito Chiesa of Stanislaus County and new Vice-Chair Dave Rogers of Madera County that the next meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee will “tentatively” be on Thursday the 26th day of April 2012 in Fresno. The location and times, based on train running times, will be put together by CalTrans Division of Rail and sent under a separate mailing in Early April so that those riding to the meeting will have ample time to purchase their tickets.


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