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Ahron Hakimi

Regardless of whether the high-speed rail project continues forward at its present rate, a lesser-known expansion proposal of the existing Amtrak system throughout the San Joaquin Valley has been quietly gathering steam.

Beginning at 6:30 p.m. this Thursday, Caltrans will host a public workshop on Amtrak's San Joaquins Vision Project at the Kern Council of Governments office, 1401 19th St., Suite 300, in Bakersfield. The San Joaquin line, which runs from Bakersfield to Oakland and Sacramento, is the fifth-busiest run in the nation.

Thirty-two million people in California are served by Amtrak's San Joaquins, which provides 20 stops connecting northern and southern California via the Central Valley at speeds up to 79 mph. The service continues to grow and has more than 1.1 million riders annually with 4.5 million riders on the connecting intercity passenger rail services (Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner).

Caltrans is developing an environmental impact report for the project, which would expand Amtrak service through additional track primarily within the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) and Union Pacific Railroad rights of way along three segments in the valley. Some Bay Area segments would be included as well. Running on their own tracks, Amtrak trains could attain speeds of up to 90 mph.

The project, whose scope spans the next 25 years, would traverse approximately 357 miles mostly in the valley and encompass three main segments: Bakersfield to Port Chicago, (about 15 miles northeast of Oakland); Port Chicago to Oakland; and Stockton to Sacramento.

Specific improvements would include a second or third main track along 88.5 miles of the Bakersfield-to-Port Chicago segment of BNSF track; 22.1 miles from Port Chicago to Oakland; and 40.6 miles of the Stockton-to-Sacramento segments. A new maintenance facility is proposed for Sacramento along with a new Amtrak station in Stockton and layover facilities in Fresno and Merced.

Generally, the project also proposes new passing track to accommodate better train flow; new or replacement bridges and culverts; improved roadway intersections; as well as new rolling stock and maintenance facilities. Up to 12 miles of the BNSF line will require doubletracking. These improvements would also help free up freight rail line that suffers from periodic bottlenecking.

Some of the alternatives include secondary passenger train segments that extend beyond the areas that the San Joaquin Corridor serves, including: Fresno to Porterville (along the San Joaquin Valley Railroad corridor); Bakersfield to Lancaster; Lancaster to Los Angeles; and Port Chicago to Richmond.

If completed, the San Joaquins could begin to approach the service level offered by the Acela Express, which runs along the Northeast Corridor, providing 16 stops to 40 million potential passengers -- including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston -- and traveling at speeds of up to 150 mph.

The Northeast Corridor continues to grow, with 3.4 million riders annually and 11.4 million riders on the connecting intercity passenger rail services. In addition, Acela tickets are cheaper than airline fares for the same route and connect to local rail services such as subway systems in D.C., N.Y. and Boston.

Locally, Caltrans estimates that within 10 years, the San Joaquins' travel demand will outpace the six daily trains available to serve the population and that ridership will be high enough to warrant eight trains a day with two additional trains operating between Oakland and Stockton. By improving the service, the project would also improve rail safety and operations and reduce air pollution to help the valley achieve its air quality goals.

The environmental impact report will address a wide range of issues and potential mitigation efforts, including air quality; biological resources; cultural resources and water quality; land-use planning; noise; transportation and traffic; and utilities and service systems.

Meetings to solicit public input on the document have already been held in Sacramento, Stockton, Richmond and Fresno. After Bakersfield, one more public meeting will be hosted in Los Angeles on Dec. 4.

Service improvements to Amtrak offer a more immediate bang for the public buck than high-speed rail. The 6:30 p.m. workshop on Nov. 29 at Kern COG in Bakersfield is a golden opportunity to help shape the vision for Amtrak within the San Joaquin Valley. We hope to see you there.

Ahron Hakimi is a civil engineer and the executive director of Kern Council of Governments, a transportation planning agency. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.