The real game changer for the economically challenged in the San Joaquin Valley won’t by California High Speed Rail. It’ll be well-run traditional rail modeled after the Altamont Corridor Express service.
That’s because high speed rail will serve one of three classes: Upper income super-distance commuters, tourists, and Los Angeles to San Francisco business travel.
ACE-style service targets traditional commuters, regional entertainment travel, and the poor.
That’s right. The poor.
Riding the ACE in 2002, I came across a 28-year-old single mom from Stockton who was riding to work. She had secured a GED after dropping out of high school. She could not find work in Stockton that offered more than 20 hours a week or paid more than the then minimum wage that was $6.75 an hour.
She was taking the ACE train to a 40-hour a week job at a downtown McDonald’s in San Jose that paid $10 an hour. Her employer also covered the cost of her monthly ACE ticket. It was the McDonald’s franchise’s way of dealing with an acute labor shortage in San Jose. She said she was one of four employees at the McDonald’s who lived in Stockton and went to work via ACE.
She was spending about four and a half hours a day on ACE trains and another 30 minutes on San Jose public transit. In exchange she had steady work that grossed her $400 a week – or $265 more than she could make in Stockton – plus her ACE travel was covered. She noted the McDonald’s job in San Jose allowed her to support herself and her son.
Proposed upgrades to ACE over the Altamont Pass where trains slow to a crawl for sharp curves is expected to reduce travel time to San Jose almost in half. That would make it a 55-minute trip between Stockton and the Lathrop/Manteca train station.
ACE, of course, was launched to address traditional commuters who jam freeway corridors to job-rich, high-paying employment centers in the Bay Area. Most moved to the Northern San Joaquin Valley as they were squeezed out by skyrocketing housing prices.
Employers such as Hewlett-Packard in 2002 were picking up all or part of the commute costs for their workers riding ACE in a bid to meet Bay Area congestion reduction goals.
But even without the ticket being subsidized by an employer, ACE is an appealing alternative to the car in dollars and cents as well as the ability to spend roughly the same time commuting relaxing, sleeping or working instead of gripping a steering wheel.
It costs $330 for a monthly pass. With 22 working days in a typical month that comes to $15 a day. Compare that to the 4.5 gallons of gasoline required to make the 140-mile round trip in a vehicle getting 30 miles per gallon. With gas at almost $4 gallon that comes to $18 a month. Granted, most of the savings would be consumed in surface public transportation costs in San Jose to reach actual job sites.
But in the end, the time is almost the same plus you can’t sleep, do work, read, study, or simply relax when you’re driving. You can do all of that and more on ACE. There is also less wear and tear on vehicles. Instead of having to replace a $25,000 car that you finance every four or five years it could last easily twice as long.
And when faster service comes, you will actually save close to two hours a day taking the train.
The prospect of ACE serving as a major economic stimulus for San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties is not just limited to traditional commuters or those seeking entry level jobs with decent wage attached.
The late Bob Cabral — an Escalon almond farmer who served on the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors and was the main driving force behind launching ACE — envisioned the day when a reverse commute would strengthen the valley economy.
Cabral could see employers locating operations requiring large work forces in the Northern San Joaquin Valley where there is a readily available labor pool at lower wages than in the Bay Area. Key management personnel who may not want to leave the Bay Area where they live would not be forced into a grinding commute instead could take ACE.
River Islands with its 800-plus million-dollar home sites atop super levees with restored banks overlooking the San Joaquin River plays right into that strategy. Owners or top personnel could be lured to live in the valley while locating their operations in the nearby River Islands business park. Meanwhile, ACE could ferry key management from Bay Area homes while the rank and file would be drawn from the valley workforce.
In terms of dollar for dollar spent, ACE rail had the potential of having a bigger impact than Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high speed rail when it comes to addressing long-term economic growth and reducing air pollution.