DATE:              June 24, 2013
 
FROM:              San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission
 
TO:                   Agencies, Organizations, and Interested Parties
 
SUMMARY: 
 
The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC) is issuing this Notice of Preparation (NOP) to advise agencies, organizations, and interested parties, that along with the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), it is jointly preparing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the ACEforward Program (proposed project).  The EIR/EIS will analyze improving and expanding existing Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) rail service between Stockton and San Jose and extending new ACE rail service to Modesto and Merced (refer to Figure 1).
 
SJRRC is the owner and operator of the ACE rail service, and will serve as the lead agency for the preparation of the EIR in compliance with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). FRA has responsibility for overseeing the safety of railroad operations and may need to take certain regulatory action prior to operation of the new or expanded service. FRA is authorized to provide federal funding for intercity passenger rail capital investments and may provide financial assistance for the program including grant funding.  FRA will serve as the federal lead agency for the preparation of the EIS in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
 
SJRRC is issuing this NOP to alert interested parties and solicit public and agency input into the development of the scope and content of the EIR and to advise the public that outreach activities conducted by the SJRRC and FRA and their representatives will be considered in the preparation of the EIR/EIS.
 
DATES:
 
Public scoping meetings will be advertised locally and are scheduled from July 22 to July 30, 2013, at the times and dates listed below. The program’s purpose and need and the description of alternatives currently under consideration for the proposed project will be presented at these meetings. Scoping materials and information concerning the scoping meetings will be made available through the SJRRC’s Internet site: http://www.acerail.com.  Comments may be provided orally or in writing at the scoping meetings scheduled at the following dates and locations:
 
  • Santa Clara – July 22, 2013, 4:30 PM – 7:30 PM - Santa Clara Central Park Library, 2635 Homestead Road, Santa Clara, CA 95051
  • Fremont – July 23, 2013, 5:00 PM - 8 PM – Fremont Senior Community Center, 40086 Paseo Padre Parkway, Fremont, CA 94538
  • Modesto – July 24, 2013, 5:00 PM – 8 PM - Stanislaus County Library Modesto Branch, 1500 I St., Modesto, CA 95354 
  • Livermore – July 29, 2013, 5:00 PM – 8 PM - Civic Center Library Community Rooms A+B, 1188 S. Livermore Ave., Livermore, CA 94550 
  • Tracy - July 30, 2013, 5:00 PM - 8 PM - Tracy Transit Station, 50 E Sixth Street, Tracy, CA 95376
 
The meeting facilities will be accessible to persons with disabilities. If special translation or signing services or other special accommodations are needed, please contact Ms. Yanna Badet at (415) 955-2837 or yanna.badet@aecom.com at least 48 hours before the scoping meeting.
 
ADDRESSES:
 
Written comments on the scope and content of the ACEforward EIR/EIS including the program’s purpose and need, the alternatives to be considered, the impacts to be evaluated and the methodologies to be used in the evaluations should be provided to SJRRC by August 16, 2013. Written comments should be sent to Mr. Dan Leavitt, Manager of Regional Initiatives, ATTN: ACEforward Program EIR/EIS, SJRRC/ ACE Headquarters 949 East Channel Street, Stockton, CA 95202, or via email with the Subject line “ACEforward EIR/EIS” to: aceforward@acerail.com.
 
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
 
Mr. Dan Leavitt, Manager of Regional Initiatives, ATTN: ACEforward EIR/EIS, SJRRC/ ACE Headquarters, 949 East Channel Street, Stockton, CA 95202 (telephone 209-944-6220).
 
SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:
 
SJRRC, in cooperation with FRA, will prepare a combined Program/Project EIR/EIS to identify and understand impacts associated with improvements to the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) rail services.
 
Past Planning Efforts
 
SJRRC and the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) conducted planning for the Altamont Corridor Rail Project (ACRP) from 2009 to 2012 to develop a new regional rail line from Stockton and Modesto to San Jose through the Altamont Pass to provide both commuter and intercity passenger rail service that would be planned to accommodate electric powered passenger trains. The ACRP would service regional transportation needs and could provide an opportunity to link to the planned California High Speed Train (HST) system.
 
The ultimate build concept of the ACRP included a grade-separated, independently-owned right of way (ROW) for electrified service from Stockton to San Jose. While the ultimate build concept of the ACRP remains a long-term potential, SJRRC has identified shorter-term goals to modernize the existing ACE service that would result in faster intercity and commuter train service and a connector link between Stockton, Merced and San Jose as early as within the next 10 years. A new suite of improvements (ACEforward) has been developed to deliver these goals. The EIR/EIS will address the ACEforward Program. If the ultimate build concept is to be implemented in the future, it would be the subject of a separate environmental review process.
 
Thus, as of June 2013, the SJRRC is now advancing the ACEforward Program. ACEforward is consistent with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) Bay Area Regional Rail Plan, which identified the Altamont Corridor as a key future northern California regional rail route. Furthermore, ACEforward will build upon the Bay Area Regional Rail Plan and the prior planning for the ACRP. ACEforward is also consistent with the CHSRA 2012 Business Plan in relation to providing an opportunity to connect existing intercity and commuter rail services to future HST service.
 
Purpose and Need of the Proposed Project
 
The purpose of the ACEforward Program is to implement a series of projects to reduce travel time, increase service reliability and frequency, improve passenger facilities and extend the reach of the ACE rail system to downtown Modesto and Merced. The need for the ACEforward Program is for enhanced intercity rail services in the northern San Joaquin Valley in the ACE corridor connecting the Southern Bay Area with the Tri-Valley and the San Joaquin Valley. This need stems from the social and economic ties and travel demand that bind together the Northern San Joaquin Valley, the Tri-Valley and the Southern Bay Area, as well as the high levels of existing traffic and future anticipated growth, travel demand, and congestion that will cause environmental degradation and higher safety risks if not addressed. This need cannot be met by the existing ACE service or infrastructure which has significant operating limitations: including limited capacity single track for much of the route, slow average operating speeds, service limitations and lack of existing service to Modesto and Merced.
 
An expanded and improved ACE would provide a mobility alternative to the automobile that would lower greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and further regional land use/transportation planning goals under SB 375 and other local, regional, and state sustainability initiatives. In addition to the environmental and mobility benefits of expanded intercity rail service with downtown stations, an improved ACE would also act as a catalyst for smart growth in communities by revitalizing city core areas and addressing traffic congestion issues in the cities of the northern Central Valley. The extensions to Modesto and Merced while servicing existing intercity transportation needs will also provide future opportunities to link to the expanding HST system, as it develops.
 
SJRRC, along with other rail providers, has partnered with the Union Pacific Railroad Company (UPRR) in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to identify the improvements needed to increase ACE service, which are included in the ACEforward Program. UPRR has agreed to validate previously identified improvements associated with near term service increase as well as study additional improvements that may be required to support further service expansion.
 
Proposed Program
 
ACEforward is a phased improvement program to reduce travel time, improve service reliability and passenger facilities along the existing Stockton to San Jose corridor and to extend ACE rail service to Modesto and to Merced. This program would provide the foundation for the long term vision of SJRRC intercity passenger rail services.
 
The program would improve the existing ACE service managed by SJRRC by delivering safety and operational improvements that enable expansion of service to 6 daily round trips between Stockton and San Jose and to extend ACE service to Modesto, which could occur as early as 2018. Following that, the program would extend ACE service to Merced and service frequency from Stockton to San Jose would increase to as many as 10 or more daily round trips, perhaps as soon as 2022.
 
The preparation of the ACEforward EIR/EIS will involve development of preliminary engineering designs and assessment of environmental effects associated with the construction, operation, and maintenance of rail improvements including new track corridors, additional track, track realignments, ancillary facilities, new stations and station improvements along the Altamont Corridor.
 
CEQA and NEPA permit the use of a tiered process for environmental review.  The first tier is a programmatic analysis of an entire program of improvements which comprehensively reviews the environmental impacts of a program as a whole at a broad conceptual level of analysis including cumulative impacts.  The second tier is a project analysis is conducted for specific improvements that are sufficiently designed to allow for a detailed analysis and the identification and disclosure of project level environmental impacts. Improvements that are only analyzed at a programmatic level of review would subsequently be reviewed at the project level before they can be approved at a project level and constructed. The EIS/EIR for ACEforward will include both a programmatic- and project-level analysis as discussed below.  
 
Programmatic Analysis
 
The programmatic analysis will describe impacts at a conceptual level of detail focused on the selection of corridors for new service and general environmental impacts associated with that selection. The EIR/EIS will programmatically analyze the following:
 
  • Stockton to San Jose
    • Increase of service to 10 trains or more in the future including corridor improvements necessary to support such increases. This may include additional analysis of potential pinch points identified by the UPRR in Niles Canyon, between Newark and Alviso, and between Santa Clara and San Jose.
    • Potential shift in service to a new passenger route along UPRR through downtown Tracy: This improvement would allow for a downtown Tracy station with improved transit connections located close to urban infill/mixed use development in Tracy.
    • Potential new stations at River Islands in Lathrop and downtown Tracy. A new station in Lathrop would allow for increased ridership potential. Relocation of the Tracy station would allow the benefits noted above.
    • Potential improved connection to BART service in the Tri-Valley area that would increase connectivity.
  • New extension to Merced
    • Up to 10 or more daily round trip trains and new downtown stations in Turlock and Merced. Additional connections and stations would increase ridership and allow greater opportunities for alternatives to vehicle travel for San Joaquin Valley residents.
    • Expansion of service to Merced using existing UPRR track, new track built within the UPRR right of way or new track outside the UPRR right of way, or some combination thereof.
  • The programmatic analysis will also address all project elements included in the project level or analysis as described below.
 
Project Level Analysis
 
Improvements identified for project level analysis will also be included in the programmatic analysis.  The EIR/EIS will assess the environmental effects of at least the following improvements at a project level of detail:
 
  • Service expansion to Modesto by as early as 2018:
    • Service would be expanded using existing UPRR track, new track built within the UPRR right of way, new track outside the UPRR right of way, or some combination thereof.
    • Potential new crossing of the Stanislaus River
    • Up to 6 daily round trips
    • New stations at downtown Manteca and downtown Modesto
  • Improvements necessary to increase service between Stockton and San Jose to 6 daily round trips by as early as 2018, including the following:
    • Upgrade of the track and structures along the former Southern Pacific line through Niles Canyon to accommodate freight traffic.
    • New connections to the former Southern Pacific line at Niles Junction and at Hearst.
    • Upgrading of sidings (“Radum” siding in Livermore/Pleasanton and Altamont and Midway sidings in the Altamont Hills; “Wyche” siding in Lathrop/Manteca).
    • New connection between the Oakland subdivision and the Fresno subdivision in Lathrop/Manteca area
 
The EIR/EIS may also analyze the following operational and safety improvements at the project level:
  • Grade-crossing improvements at existing at-grade crossings (four quadrant gates, signals, etc.)
  • Grade-separations at several high-priority locations between Stockton and San Jose
  • Improvements within the existing ROWs at Niles Junction in Fremont/Union City and at the Hearst siding in Pleasanton
  • Addition of a parking structure at the Pleasanton Station
 
Alternatives
 
The EIR/EIS will consider  the range of reasonable and feasible alternatives that meet the purpose and need.  The EIR/EIS will also consider a No Project Alternative as required under CEQA and NEPA. Several possible alternatives, other than the No Project Alternative, are described below. SJRRC and FRA will determine the project alternatives to be considered in the EIR/EIS after review of scoping comments and preliminary evaluation of environmental impacts. Conceptual alternatives for meeting the purpose and need are described below. 
 
No Project Alternative
 
The No Project alternative serves as the baseline for assessment of alternatives. The No Project Alternative represents the region’s transportation system (highway, air, and conventional rail) as it exists at the time of the EIR/EIS preparation, and as it would exist in the future without completion of the improvements included in the program description. The No Project Alternative defines the existing and future intercity transportation system for the Altamont Corridor and Northern San Joaquin Valley based on programmed and funded improvements to the intercity transportation system, according to the following sources of information: the State Transportation Improvement Program , Regional Transportation Plans  for all modes of travel, airport plans, and intercity passenger rail plans.
 
Independent Right of Way Alternative
 
Independent right of way adjacent to the UPRR right of way that would seek to maximize the provision of a separate ROW for future ACE service will be considered in specific locations including between Manteca and Merced, and possibly over the Altamont Pass. This alternative would reduce the potential for scheduling and other constraints from operating on shared tracks with freight operations.
 
Shared Corridor Alternative
 
A second alternative that may be considered would be provision of a dedicated passenger track within the existing railroad ROW. Such a track could be utilized by passenger trains or by freight trains, but would be developed primarily for passenger traffic use.
 
Other Potential Alternatives
 
Other alternatives that could be considered could vary proposed program elements. Such variations could include, for example: 1) other station locations as they arise through the project scoping process; 2) continued use of the existing route to the south of Tracy instead of a downtown alignment; 3) track variations, such as an elevated or sub-grade track instead of an at-grade section; and 4) other variations in alignment, track improvements, service levels, and stations.
 
The EIR/EIS Process and the Role of Participating Agencies and the Public
 
The purpose of the EIR/EIS process is to explore in a public setting the potentially significant effects of the proposed project on the environment. Based on a preliminary review of the project area and in consideration of the proposed project activities, SJRRC has determined that proposed project may result in potential significant impacts (under CEQA) related to the following: aesthetics; agricultural resources; air quality biological resources; cultural and paleontological resources; geology, soils and seismicity; greenhouse gas emissions and climate change; hydrology and water quality; land use; noise and vibration; population and housing; public services and utilities; and transportation and traffic.   
 
The SJRRC and FRA will assess the site characteristics, size, nature, and timing of the improvements to determine whether the impacts are potentially significant and whether impacts can be avoided or mitigated. The EIR/EIS will identify and evaluate reasonable and feasible site-specific alignment alternatives, evaluate the impacts from construction, operation, and maintenance and identify mitigation measures. Information and documents regarding the ACEforward environmental review process will be made available through the SJRRC’s Internet site: http://www.acerail.com/sjrrc/capitalprojects.aspx > ACEforward
 
Scoping and Comments
 
SJRRC encourages broad participation in the EIR process during scoping and review of the resulting environmental document. Comments and suggestions are invited from all interested agencies and the public at large to insure the full range of issues related to the proposed project and all reasonable alternatives are addressed and that all significant issues are identified. In particular, SJRRC is interested in learning whether there are areas of environmental concern where there might be a potential for significant impacts. Public agencies with jurisdiction are requested to advise SJRRC and FRA of the applicable permit and environmental review requirements of each agency, and the scope and content of the environmental information that is germane to the agency’s statutory responsibilities in connection with the proposed program. Public agencies are requested to advise SJRRC if they anticipate taking a major action in connection with the proposed program and if they wish to cooperate in the preparation of the EIR/EIS.
 
Public scoping meetings have been scheduled as an important component of the scoping process for both the state and federal environmental review. The scoping meetings described in this NOP will be advertised locally and additional public notice will be provided separately with the dates, times, and locations of these scoping meetings.