Merced residents get their first look at plans for downtown high-speed rail train station

For the first time Merced residents were able to view what the future high-speed rail station may look like downtown and were able to hear a possible timeline of when construction could begin on the long-awaited project.

Officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority held an open house at the Merced Senior Community Center to discuss the project on Thursday night that drew a large crowd, including many City of Merced officials.

People were able to look at artist renderings of the future Merced station, which will be located along 15th Street between O and R streets. People were able to ask questions and leave suggestions for what they’d like to see in the design of the station.

“Tonight is a great opportunity for us to hear from the community and to have a conversation with them about what’s important about the design of the California High-speed Rail station here in Merced,” said Margaret Cederoth, the director of planning and sustainability for the High Speed Rail Authority.

When will we be able to ride the trains?

Merced is one of four bullet-train stations being built in the Central Valley, along with stations in Fresno, Bakersfield and on the outskirts of Hanford.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority hopes to begin carrying riders on its 171-mile initial operating line between Merced and Bakersfield by 2030.

Cederoth says the plan is to complete design work by mid-2026, which would allow them to hopefully begin construction in 2027.

“I think it was clear this evening the High-speed Rail Authority is laser focused on the Merced to Bakersfield operating segment,” Cederoth said.

The Merced station will feature viaducts on which elevated tracks and boarding platforms will sit, with entry plazas and concourses at ground level. Merced’s station is also being designed as a hub for multiple passenger rail services: high-speed rail, the existing Amtrak San Joaquin service, and a future southern terminus for the Stockton-based ACE Rail trains.

“It makes Merced, at least once that initial operating segment is complete, in a lot ways the Northern California, Central California railroad hub,” said Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto.

Impact on Merced

“It’s a huge development opportunity for us as well with all the underutilized vacant properties, especially in the downtown core,” Serratto added. “If we do this right — so everything is linked together — in a way that people can feed into the station, it just creates so many opportunities to develop our core as well.”

Merced Director of Economic Development Frank Quintero says the future high-speed rail station has already brought millions of dollars to downtown Merced.

“If you look at the development of downtown, a lot of it was based on people expecting high-speed rail to come in,” Quintero said.

Quintero said investors from The El Capitan Hotel, The Mainzer and The Tioga were all “focused on how high-speed rail was going to be able to benefit their investments.”

Station suggestions

People were asked to give their feedback on the design plans of the Merced station and residents posted plenty of suggestions on sticky notes on the renderings.

People asked for protective bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure at the station. Some people asked for parking structures and not just parking lots. Others asked to create a community space and for easy access to downtown.

Peter Sokoloff, who is the principal in charge of the design team of Central Valley stations, says they want to hear from people what makes Merced special.

He said their goal is to make the station a comfortable place for passengers to enjoy their traveling experience.

“Hopefully, we go away, we come up with a vision and come back in six to eight months when we’ve had time to cook things a bit more and share what we’ve done and hopefully explain how we’ve taken the ideas that we’ve learned and adapted them put them into a station design,” Sokoloff said.

Justin Barnard, who lives in Mariposa County, says the project has been beneficial to local workforce. Barnard is a business agent for Operating Engineers Local 3 Union, who have had 400 people working on the project in the Central Valley.

“It’s a tremendous boost for jobs,” Barnard said. “There’s multiple, multiple different work opportunities for multiple contractors and different things so we’ve had apprentices start on project.”

“It’s a huge boost in money where our people work, where our people live and they spend money,” Barnard added. “They’re buying homes, they’re buying cars, they’re buying soccer cleats, they’re buying everything. We’ve had a lot of great Christmases because of this project.”

Serratto says the concerns he hears about the project at the local level are the same people have at the state level. The biggest concerns are the cost, the project delays and will people ride the trains?

This project has been in the works for over 15 years. California voters passed a $9.9 billion bond measure to support development of a statewide high-speed rail system, in November 2008.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation pledged the first of several installments of federal grants to help pay for planning and construction of the project in the San Joaquin Valley.

After the first construction contract for work to be in the Central Valley was awarded in 2013, a formal groundbreaking was held in Fresno in 2015.

Serratto says for people to see the plans and to hear the timeline will help get people excited about the project.

“It’s a huge help,” Serratto said. “If you can start to touch it, feel it and you know there’s progress.”

A north-facing cross-section view of a future high-speed rail station in downtown Merced shows how it wills serve not only high-speed passenger trains and Amtrak San Joaquin trains on elevated tracks above a concourse, but also a future southern extension of Stockton’s ACE Rail passenger trains at ground level, near the Union Pacific Railroad freight rail tracks.