Merced County Times Newspaper
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Castle as rail hub signifies major economic opportunity

A new economic engine arrives at Castle.
A new economic engine arrives at Castle.

It has been 27 years since Castle Air Force Base closed and Merced County hoped it would become the economic engine which would drive the county into the next century.

It has not happened quite that way, but the latest contract with Patriot Rail could be the answer.

Merced County and Patriot Rail — which already has 14 other rail hubs across the country — signed a contract to partner in such a venture last February, and the firm has started operations this month. It already has a locomotive on site at Castle.

Patriot Rail is a national transportation company for trucks and rail service, off loading trailers and putting them on railroad cars destined for the ports of Los Angeles and Oakland.

The benefits are substantial. The cost of transporting a trailer by rail is only a fraction of what it costs to haul it by truck.

According to Don Itzkoff, a chief policy maker for Patriot Rail: “One ton of goods can be transported 450 miles by rail for the cost of one gallon of diesel.”

A special video conference was set up by county staff with Patriot Rail and the Times to discuss the agreement with the county that was approved by the Board of Supervisors, and signed on Feb. 8.

Involved in the video conference were County Supervisors Daron McDaniels and Lloyd Pareira, Economic Development Director Mark Hendrickson, and Deputy Director of Economic Development Mark Mimms, along with county executive team members Mike North, Aracely Sanchez and Tamra Williams.

Moving cargo by a train, as opposed to a truck, cuts the amount of emissions by 95 percent of what they would be if trucks did all the hauling. This is something the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is very interested in.

For valley farmers, the shelf life of produce is extremely important, and moving produce to the ports of Los Angeles and Oakland by trucks is causing clogs in the food supply line. Moving the same produce by rail will help speed up that delivery and make it more economical to sell overseas.

Another major benefit would be to take trucks off the roads. Itzkoff said the taxes paid by trucks does not offset the costs of the roads which they use, while railroads are privately funded and therefore pay for their own construction and maintenance, and that includes Amtrak.

According to Hendrickson, Patriot Rail has already invested $1.2 million in onsite improvements at Castle, and is prepared for the service expansion to start this month.

There is also an interest by Patriot Rail in possibly purchasing 70 acres of Castle property in the future to build out its plan.

Patriot Rail has 14 transloading depots similar to the one they are building at Castle. The nearest one is at the former McClellan AFB in Sacramento. That rail depot station has been in business for 13 years.

At the time Castle AFB closed, it had 6,000 employees, half military and half civilian working at the base. When Castle AFB closed, the economic loss to the county was devastating.

Hendrickson said they are just now removing some of the barracks which have cluttered the base property since the closure. Not only was there issues of old decaying buildings, but underground water supplies were mixed with plane fuel while the base was active.

For years that slowed the development of Castle down, and it is now finally able to sell and lease property on its own.

Itzkoff said to start, there would only be five or six employees working at the Patriot Rail transloading depot; however, that number could grow to 300 once the project is fully operational.

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