Elk Grove looks to build train station

04/12/2014 12:00 AM

04/13/2014 2:54 PM

Elk Grove wants to build a train station to serve commuters in the fast-growing city, with hopes of turning dirt on the project in summer 2015.

City officials envision a commuter-rail service that takes advantage of Amtrak’s existing San Joaquin line for now, and they hope residents might someday board a high-speed rail train at the station.

Elk Grove is vying for a grant from the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, a stimulus measure that has funded more than $4.1 billion in rail, transit and freight-related projects since 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Local officials and transportation advocates see the station as an overdue option for commuters in this bedroom community of 160,000 traveling north to Sacramento or points south and west.

“Folks are very hungry to get this off the ground,” said Mike Barnbaum of Sacramento transportation advocates Here We Ride. “Elk Grove is one of the fastest-growing cities in the six-county region. In a community and city with the growth Elk Grove is having, it seems fitting. It’s time to take the next step and have a train serve the community.”

Today, Elk Grove and south Sacramento County residents must either travel north to downtown Sacramento or south to Lodi to board a train. Amtrak operates a Thruway bus stop in the Laguna West neighborhood that connects to those stations.

The Elk Grove Intermodal Rail Station Master Plan envisions building on a pizza-slice sliver of 8.5 acres just south of Sheldon Road. The site is bounded by Union Pacific rails to the west and Elk Grove-Florin Road to the east, straddling Whitehouse Creek. The project would include park-and-ride lots, bus connections and rail.

Preliminary renderings show an open, tree-dotted lot and rail stop. A portion of the Whitehouse Creek bed where a small rail bridge sits would become a paved walkway and undercrossing to and from the station.

Barnbaum said it could be a hub. Commuters could travel on Amtrak to Sacramento for work and connect with the Capitol Corridor. They could catch a bus that heads across town to a Regional Transit Blue Line light-rail stop at Cosumnes River College expected to open in September 2015.

“That describes our vision,” said Richard Shepard, the city’s public works director. “We’re trying to make all those pieces happen.”

Elk Grove officials estimate the rail project will cost about $25 million, accounting for land purchases and construction costs. TIGER grant recipients will be announced this fall.

The city has studied plans for a rail station for about six years, first at a site off Elk Grove Boulevard in Old Town Elk Grove, before turning its focus to Elk Grove-Florin Road.

“Having a rail stop in Elk Grove would alleviate traffic on Highway 99 and give motorists another option,” said Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis.

A dedicated station would also open the possibility of Elk Grove as a high-speed rail stop, said Richard Shepard, the city’s public works director. The proposed $68 billion bullet-train project would extend more than 500 miles from Sacramento to San Diego.

Much remains unclear, however. Union Pacific owns the rail that cuts through Elk Grove. Freight is UP’s priority, and the city will have to persuade the railroad to add passenger traffic.

Amtrak currently runs two trains a day each way between Stockton and Sacramento. The two northbound trains do not operate in the morning, and only one southbound train runs during the afternoon commute.

“We don’t know how they’ll react,” Shepard said of Union Pacific. A meeting with UP set for two weeks away will be a “litmus test” for where it stands on the rail station plan, Shepard said.

Amtrak, which operates the rail service, is reviewing the proposal, its officials said Thursday, but Shepard said the rail carrier has made no commitments to the city.

Meanwhile, Caltrans, which administers Amtrak rail service in California, is handing oversight of Amtrak’s Bakersfield-to-Sacramento San Joaquin service to the recently formed San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.

The San Joaquin JPA wants to extend and expand Amtrak San Joaquin rail service to Sacramento. The authority, whose 10 member agencies include the Sacramento Regional Transit District, supports Elk Grove’s TIGER grant application.

“It’s something that’s been needed for a long time. It certainly will increase the ridership of the (Amtrak) San Joaquin,” said Dan Leavitt, a JPA spokesman.

But the JPA cannot negotiate with Union Pacific on passenger service until the Caltrans handover later this year.

The San Joaquin is already one of Amtrak’s busiest routes carrying more than 1.1 million riders a year – Capitol Corridor’s ridership tops 1.7 million – but officials at the JPA say no service has been added since 2002.

“From our perspective, this is a tremendous market opportunity if we get trains at the right time of day,” said JPA spokesman Dan Leavitt. “All you have to do is take a daily drive on (Highway) 99 or (Interstate) 5.”

If the city wins the TIGER grant, construction would begin in 2015 and take about two years, Shepard said.

The Elk Grove-Florin Road site has passed environmental muster and Elk Grove is still in talks with landholders to move property into city hands, Shepard said, but “the challenge is finding money,” he said. “We will ask for as much TIGER money as we can get. It’s a very competitive process, but we think we have good merits.”

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