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Manteca needs to prepare for mixing even more trains with city vehicle traffic

Manteca has a 6,000 ton problem.

Strike that. It has a gargantuan problem that easily surpasses 250,000 tons and makes Godzilla seem like a cuddly kitten in comparison.

The problem is trains — lots of trains. No less than 40 trains a day pass through Manteca with a lot more on the way as San Joaquin County continues to situate itself as the major distribution hub for the Northern California Mega Region as well as the crossroads of a massive emerging regional and state passenger rail system.

It’s not the fact a typical train weighs 6,000 plus tons. It is the frequency and the speeds.

Saturday between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. is an example of how bad it can get now and a glimpse of how it will be much, much worse in the future. Saturday without a doubt from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. is a non-stop traffic hell in Manteca. That’s when the bulk of households where one or both breadwinners commute long distances during the week do most of their shopping from Costco runs to hitting a wide repertoire of stores. It is also the biggest day for dining out in Manteca.

A trip to Costco on Saturday became an exercise in frustration for people from east Manteca. Unless they used the 120 Bypass that had tons of westbound traffic and locals try to avoid for obvious reasons, they were trapped in a typical traffic snafu.

A slow moving long train heading toward Ripon was backing traffic up on Spreckels Avenue to the northern boundary of American Modular. Those making a U-turn and heading back to Yosemite to cross town on the assumption that the Yosemite track crossing would open up first, found themselves backed up to Manteca High. The backup was equally bad on Main Street as the train rolled through town at perhaps 20 mph.

When the train did clear crossings, another train on a siding still blocked Spreckels Avenue as well as Woodward Avenue. Minutes later the crossings at Main, Yosemite and Center were again blocked by the second slow moving train creating multiple block backups on city streets.

Some 45 minutes later the return trip from Costco saw another slow train blocking Spreckels Avenue on the main line and another on the siding waiting for it to clear.

Manteca today is closing in on 85,000 residents. In six years we will easily surpass 100,000. That is in addition to more freight trains as Union Pacific Railroad’s intermodal (truck container to  train lifts) operation grows on the Manteca-Lathrop border where train traffic is  projected to increase 2½ times over the next 20 to 30 years. And we can’t forget the coming of Altamont Corrider Express passenger service by 2023 and the distinct possibly a hybrid train service of some type will initially at least connect high speed rail in Merced with Bay Area points via the Altamont Pass.

Imagine what things will be like with likely double the train movements and in excess of 40,000 more residents in two decades for almost a 50 percent increase in population.

This is not hyperbole. The city has been adding between 1,500 and 2,200 residents annually for the past 10 years. The trains are coming.

What makes Manteca’s situation worse is it has two major railroad lines — one heading toward Modesto with 9 at-grade crossing and another heading toward the Bay Area with 4 at-grade crossing. That is the most by far of any city in the Northern San Joaquin Valley especially for tracks that typically see trains moving through town at 50 mph plus.

The line that heads toward the Altamont Pass is not as problematic thanks to the two overcrossing the City of Lathrop had the foresight to pursue on Lathrop Road. One of those bridges crosses the line heading toward Ripon but it has zero impact on crosstown Manteca traffic.

As it is now, the 120 Bypass is the only existing way to cross the north-south tracks without using an at-grade crossing. Work on the 120 Bypass/Highway 99 first phase targeted to start in 2021 will include a new Austin Road bridge that will extend across the tracks as well as the freeway.

Making matters worse is Manteca’s smart growth pattern. The city has not been leap frogging and is basically growing to the north and the south. That will likely keep downtown — specifically Main Street that is currently the city’s busiest north-south street along with Yosemite Avenue that is the only east-west street that ties major retail centers in the west and east — at the center of the city.

That’s good in a lot of ways but with a major railroad line slashing through the city with only at-grade crossings it will make what traffic snarls you are experiencing now seem like the streets are bare of vehicles.

What is needed is a game plan with solutions Manteca can pursue to prevent a complete quagmire. Mayor Ben Cantu is right. The trains were here first and they are vital for our economy.

That said there is no concerted effort to look at rail traffic and vehicle movements holistically in Manteca. It is why the city needs to explore options now. And it should not be done in a vacuum, on a piecemeal basis or assume staff will come up with a cohesive game plan without council direction.

If anything cries for a blue ribbon committee appointed by the council to get widespread community input as well as to explore options it is the issue of train movements and how they impact vehicle movements and the overall quality of life.

Among the topics such a committee should explore:

uis whether the city should apply pressure to make sure when double tracking comes for the line slashing through Manteca if the Union Pacific needs to still maintain and use a siding that it is moved farther south of Austin Road so there aren’t three tracks at crossings for Spreckels Avenue and Woodward Avenue.

uis whether the city should pursue a bridge across the tracks on Airport Way and start work on funding as well as a second separated crossing at Main Street.

ua spine road for trucks to reach the 120 Bypass via McKinley Avenue that Councilman Gary Singh champions for access to industrial and business parks the city is pursing to the west of Airport Way between Yosemite Avenue and French Camp Road. It would take trucks out of the equation not just during times when trains are blocking crossings but also the daily mixing with auto traffic.

umaking sure the city pursues the best location for additional parking near the Manteca Transit Center for the 1,400 plus daily riders  projected to start boarding ACE trains in 2023 in downtown Manteca. Where the city plops down parking will reverberate through downtown and nearby neighborhoods.

umaking sure the passenger platform at the transit center is placed far enough from the Main Street crossing so that when ACE trains are stopped to pick up or drop off passengers the crossing arms are not down at Main Street.

uwhat seem to be pie-on-the-sky solutions such as creating a “canyon” for trains running through Manteca to run on tracks below grade similar to what you see on downtown Reno in case there is an outside chance they might get traction.

uany other issue tied to train movements that impacts traffic, public safety and even noise. Such a committee could be taxed with further exploring quiet zones and possible ways of funding them.

 The current council — should they pursue such a committee — will do what no other council before them has done which is take a serious look at the long-range impact of train movements on Manteca’s quality of life, traffic flow, and air quality issues made worse by backed up idling traffic waiting for trains to pass.

The solutions carry a steep price. That is why if all concerns are vetted and the costs weighed — from the dollar amount to impacts building an overcrossing in established areas — people may be willing to be a tad more patient. That would be especially true if they know the true costs of solutions and that the only way to pay for them is to significantly increase their taxes.

Education is much more powerful than rhetoric that simply pays lip service to concerns about the impact of trains.