Photo of Downtown Fresno Amtrak station via Amtrak San Joaquins.
Written by Frank Lopez
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed by President Biden in November earmarks $110 billion for roads, bridges and major infrastructure projects, as well as $66 billion in passenger and freight rail.
Of the $66 billion, Amtrak plans to use $22 billion for capital projects and fleet acquisition.
The Central Valley’s Amtrak system has been active with renovation, expansion and construction since before the bill was signed. It will be flush with new activity with the new funding.
Stacey Mortensen is executive director of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA), which oversees governance and management of the region’s passenger rail service. It consists of ten member agencies including the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission that Mortensen also leads, the Tulare County Association of Governments, Madera County Transportation Commission, Fresno Council of Governments and the Kings County Association of Governments.
Over a span of five to eight years, Mortensen said that the Central Valley region will receive about $1.3 billion in investments for its railroad systems — and the SJJPA will apply for more.
“Fresno is really one our hottest locations for the San Joaquin service in general. It’s an area that’s of great importance to us,” Mortensen said.
San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission Marketing Manager David Lipari said the Fresno market is poised for expanded service. The Fresno Amtrak station is the busiest in the San Joaquin Valley.
Though no major station projects are planned in Fresno, Lipari said that there are plans in place to add an eighth round-trip route once ridership stabilizes to pre-pandemic levels.
Both Kings and Tulare officials are exploring an Amtrak feeder bus service between the two counties in preparation for rail service that they have dubbed the “Cross County Connector.”
The SJJPA is helping on the rail aspect through planning, funding opportunities and setting up a Memorandum of Understanding between the parties to start with initial bus service — and eventually expanding to a viable rail service.
Mortensen said that if the planning doesn’t get done, the project will not be eligible for new state and federal funding programs.
A major upcoming project in the Central Valley is the relocation of the Madera Amtrak station.
The current Amtrak Madera train station sits around three miles north of town, has low ridership and lacks a connecting bus service due to its isolated location. The Madera station will be relocated near Avenue 12 to improve ridership and connectivity.
The project footprint stretches approximately 3,600 feet north of Cottonwood Creek and approximately 150 feet south of Avenue 11.
“Its relocation has a whole host of benefits for the community. Where the current Madera station is there is no transit connectivity and no development plan in that area from the city’s perspective,” Lipari said. “Through coordination with all the stakeholders, we all coalesced around the new location for being around the community college, and it also happens to be a well accessible location to north Fresno as well.”
Local businesses and companies are also benefitting from recent work done on the region’s rail systems. Through the course of the planning, design and environmental work, local companies have made bids for projects.
This also includes work for local engineering firms and more.
Lipari said there is exploration for alternative ways to propel trains, and the agency is partnering with outside entities on the research side for what it might look like to have a zero-emission vehicle running in the Central Valley.
The Valley is a great place to try out some of these technologies because it’s so flat,” Lipari said.
Mortensen said that areas with more population density, such as the San Francisco Bay area, tend to get the focus for environmental efforts on the national level. But there is recognition that the Central Valley has air quality issues, is a growing population center and that it should have access to the new technologies and funding earlier rather than waiting for the denser areas to get theirs first.
Though nationally, the Covid-19 pandemic did give a big hit to riders on the rails, the San Joaquin Valley is recovering strongly.
According to a press release from Amtrak from December, business was at about 70% of pre-Covid levels, up from 25% at the same time in 2020.
“We did recover ridership quite quickly and at this point we are still climbing back to 100%, but the train is a part of the culture and the way that people move in and around our region and the state, and we are committed as an agency to continuing to think about how this service can serve the community,” Lipari said.