Regional oversight of Amtrak sought by Valley

Merced Sun-starMarch 9, 2012 

Efforts to move government oversight of Amtrak from the state level to the regional level have generated momentum in the Central Valley.

Advocates of creating a regional governing board to manage rail-passenger issues in the Valley continue to point to the success of Northern California's Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority.

Such a move could raise even more questions about the struggling high-speed rail project. Amtrak's record ridership numbers could be affected by the multibillion-dollar bullet train. However, supporters of the regional JPA said the two issues are separate and distinct.

A meeting Friday at Merced College brought together numerous transportation experts, elected officials and business people.

Their participation ensured that their views would get an extensive airing because of their local, regional and statewide clout.

"One thing is we can get a higher ability to negotiate with the freight railroads with the Joint Powers Authority," said Dan Leavitt, special projects coordinator with the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. "And also to talk both to the state and at the federal level to get more resources for the services."

Leavitt and others addressed the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley at its first quarterly meeting of the year. The group of regional officials and private-sector leaders seemed broadly supportive of the idea.

"I think it makes sense for local entities to come together and form this rail JPA," said Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the partnership's chairwoman. "I think our region would be much better served. I think there will be a lot of wide-spread support for this move."

California has three inter-city passenger rail systems -- San Diego through Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo; Bakersfield to Sacramento and Oakland; and San Jose to Auburn.

In 1996, California passed legislation allowing the formation of a Joint Powers Authority to oversee rail service for a region.

While the law was originally requested by officials from Southern California, only the San Jose-to-Auburn region, now known as the Capitol Corridor, formed a JPA. Caltrans manages the Central Valley and Southern California systems.

"Once [Northern California] did that, their ridership shot up, they got more money for service improvements, they expanded, they got better fare-box recovery," said Stacey Mortensen, executive director of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. "You can take a good system under the state and make it a great system under regional governance because it's closer to the people who are using it."

Several state-level bills have recently been introduced that would create JPAs to oversee regional rails systems in both Southern California and the Central Valley. The idea seems to have broad bipartisan support.

Putting the control of regional rail issues in the hands of local officials could have broad implications moving ahead as California pushes forward to create one of the most sophisticated transportation systems in the world.

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