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Merced to lobby for high-speed rail jobs

(The following story by Scott Jason appeared on the Merced Sun-Star website on February 3, 2009.)

MERCED, Calif. Merced renewed its support for California's high-speed rail system Monday with a plan to join a financially backed committee that will lobby on the city's behalf as the project moves forward.

Rail system planners have selected Merced to have a downtown station. Castle Commerce Center may be a maintenance hub for the entire system, creating hundreds of jobs in the county.

Both designations have the potential to draw businesses and other development, which is why the city and county are willing to fight for them.

"The future is upon us," Councilman Jim Sanders said. "Trains and rails are how we're going to get around. Cars will take a lesser role."

Voters in November approved Proposition 1A, nearly a $10 billion bond measure to pay for the project's first phase, which would begin in the Valley.

The 700-mile passenger rail system would connect Los Angeles to the Bay Area, likely through the Pacheco Pass.

The Greater Merced High-Speed Rail Committee, a group of citizens, formed to support the project. Now that it's looking more likely that 220-mph trains will zip across the state, it's asked city and county governments to increase their support by giving cash and having elected leaders join its ranks.

The Board of Supervisors pledged $40,000 to do a study on whether it'd be possible to create a maintenance hub at Castle Commerce Center.

Studies by the California High-Speed Rail Authority show it'd like to see a station in Merced's downtown, though a specific area has not been named. The authority estimates that about 4,000 people could be passing through Merced's station daily.

The city is poised to donate between $10,000 and $15,000 to the committee. The council will vote on the amount during its next meeting.

The committee will have three main tasks: finding a location for the station, lobbying for the maintenance hub and exploring a connection between the BNSF tracks and the Union Pacific tracks so that bullet trains needing maintenance can get to Castle.

The state authority has shown preference for aligning the high-speed rail system with Union Pacific's tracks, though the company has said publicly it doesn't want trains running along its tracks.

Assistant City Manager Bill Cahill reminded council members that, like UC Merced, the high-speed rail system will take years to develop. But as planning gains steam, the city wants to make sure it's left with a station.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

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