Merced County Times Newspaper
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John Miller

County leaders moving projects forward at Castle

The Merced County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took preliminary steps toward bringing to life two economic development projects at the former Castle Air Force Base.

One includes a market study on rail transport of goods between Merced County and the Port of Los Angeles, and the other features a multimillion-dollar grant to develop an automotive testing center.

Castle  — now called the Mid-California International Trade District, or MCITD — is the site of a new development strategy focused on rail and goods movement. If successful, the project would facilitate a flow of products along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to and from the Port of Los Angeles.

The Board of Supervisors entered into an agreement with the Port of Los Angeles in 2017, essentially making the international trade district an inland port.

This new district would bring regional benefits and spur investment and economic activity throughout the valley, according to Mark Hendrickson, the county’s director of Community and Economic Development.

“This is a transformative project for the way we move goods in California” he said. “It’s a long-term strategy that we’re very optimistic about.”

Tuesday’s action by the Board of Supervisors contributed $10,000 toward a Market Feasibility Study by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The study will examine the proposed project to determine how much demand there might be for goods movement along the railroad between Merced County and the Port of Los Angeles.

Several other valley counties, cities and agencies have also contributed toward the project, recognizing the project’s potential for regional benefit, according to Lloyd Pareira, chairman of the Merced County Board of Supervisors.

“If we can bring this project to fruition, it means getting semi-trucks off the road, reducing congestion and improving air quality,” said Pareira, who also serves on the air district Board.

“Coupled with the economic opportunities, the possibilities of developing the MCITD as an inland port is very exciting,” he said.

There are still many steps to bringing the project to reality, but if successful, this long-term strategy could turn the Mid-California International Trade District into a hub for manufacturers and would provide the Port of Los Angeles with a centralized location for importing and exporting goods.

In addition to the inland port project taking place at the former Castle Air Force Base, the development of driverless vehicle technology is also becoming a noteworthy industry at the site.

The Mid-California International Trade District is already home to Waymo — Google’s driverless car company — and could soon be used as an automotive testing environment for other manufacturers via its California Auto Tech Testing and Development Center.

The testing and development center is a planned 300-acre, state-of-the-art, multi-user shared-use testing complex that would allow name-brand vehicle manufacturers to conduct high-speed and autonomous technology testing, according to Hendrickson.

“Several companies and potential investors have expressed interest in the site,” he said. “Considering the success we’ve already had with Waymo, we hope to build on that and develop the site into a cutting-edge facility in California.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved an agreement with the California State Transportation Agency to accept a $6.5 million grant for the California Auto Tech Testing and Development Center. The funding will be used to develop the site, which is, in part, being designed by industry partners.

Supervisor Daron McDaniel, whose district includes the Mid-California International Trade District and the California Auto Tech Testing and Development Center, explained that the timing on this project is ideal.

“The automotive industry is undergoing tremendous growth and is in the midst of a transformation,” McDaniel said. “This growth and transformation requires new offsite testing and support facilities. Our project is designed to accommodate for that.”

County documents show that the testing and development center will support a range of testing environments, including an urban grid, high-speed, asymmetrical intersections, parking facilities and off-paved roadway testing. It will also include 5G and short-range communication technology.

Both of these projects will take several years to develop and bring to completion, according to County staff.  If successful, they will be instrumental in bringing jobs and investment to Merced County and the surrounding region.

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