Work to start on new Sacramento light-rail route
The Sacramento Bee
Friday, Oct. 9, 2009
It may look like the train to nowhere. But Sacramento Regional Transit officials are convinced it's an example of how to do transit right.
Despite financial woes, RT breaks ground next week on step one of a long-standing plan to build light rail from downtown to Natomas and, eventually, the airport.
The first step is a short one, running a lonely mile through vacant land from the county courthouse at Eighth and H streets to a terminus amid warehouses and back offices in a largely industrial area on Richards Boulevard.
Extension of the line over the American River is unlikely to happen before 2014, the airport connection not before 2017, RT officials said.
Until then, the little starter line to the corner of Richards and Seventh Street will be left to stand on its own.
For RT it represents a ride into the unknown at a tough time.
Cost estimates jumped from $37 million to $44 million at the last minute, forcing the agency to scramble to borrow money.
RT does not have money in its current budget to run trains once the line opens � expected in November 2010 � but RT officials said recent fare increases and internal cuts should free enough to fund a modest two-train line until the economy improves.
"Better to get these projects in place now," RT General Manager Mike Wiley said. "It will be more expensive later."
The bigger mystery, however, is how many riders will board the trains in an area where few now live and where redevelopment is only beginning.
RT officials acknowledge ridership numbers will be low at first. Fewer than 300 boardings per weekday are projected at Richards Boulevard in the first year � less than at the RT rail system's other terminus stations.
Sacramento City Councilman Ray Tretheway, an RT board member, brushed that aside, saying he is excited that for the first time light rail will go in first, then will help shape development.
"The risks were weighed, and I think we made the right call," he said. "To have transit there first is huge."
Typically, RT has wedged new light-rail lines into developed suburban areas, arriving as an afterthought to communities of car commuters.
By going in first, planners say, light rail and its stations can become focal points of new, urban-style, transit-oriented communities.
"It gives us opportunity to establish transit as the mode of choice as people move in," Wiley said. "It's a new test for us."
Mike McKeever, head of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the regional transportation planning body, said he will be watching with interest.
"It can actually play a role in transforming the land use in the area," he said.
When that happens is uncertain. With the economy down, officials said they don't know how long it will take for development to hit stride.
Several area landowners said they are laying groundwork now for dense housing, office and retail development near the rail line.
They hope to attract what developer Steve Goodwin calls "urban pioneers" � young couples and empty-nesters � who want to live near downtown and the river, and use transit for some daily travel.
Goodwin's project, called Township 9, will be directly linked to RT's Richards Boulevard light-rail station. Goodwin's company will help pay for the station.
The Township 9 development, when built out, could have 2,300 dwelling units near the station, mixed with offices and neighborhood stores.
"Yeah, it's a risk for RT, and a risk for us, but those are the kinds of risks required to spur development in areas that are landlocked," Goodwin said.
The city of Sacramento already has moved some offices into the Richards area, and the California Highway Patrol will have moved nearly 1,000 employees to a new headquarters there by the end of this year, officials said.
The huge downtown railyard is slated to become a development of housing, offices, stores and entertainment venues in the next decade. RT plans to add a light-rail station to its line through there as development occurs.
For now, the line's two trains, each with one car, will start near the 13th Street station between R and Q streets, run on existing lines among other trains to Eighth and H streets, then set out on their own up Seventh Street to Richards.
Planning for the line � called the Green Line � has been on fast-forward for a year, but RT had to jump a sudden hurdle last month when construction bids came in high.
The new estimate, $44 million, forced RT to borrow from a developer-fee account and from funds set aside for future improvements on the Gold Line to Folsom. The bulk of construction money is coming from RT's share of local Measure A transportation sales tax funds.
Getting the line built soon may turn out to be important for another financial reason, RT officials said.
RT is considering going to the ballot in November 2010 to ask Sacramentans to help finance more transit projects. Wiley said he wants the Green Line built before election day, to show voters the agency can get projects built, even in hard times.
Recent delays getting financing may have put that in jeopardy.
"I am not ready to give up yet that we will have a ribbon cutting prior to an election," Wiley said. "It is an extremely aggressive schedule."
Other transportation officials in the region have said a November 2010 funding request from voters may be too soon, and say 2012 may be a more realistic option.