Sacramento Regional Transit has broken ground on one of its most ambitious projects ever, a $270 million southern rail extension to Cosumnes River College. Work began this month on two bridges that will carry trains over creeks and a major south Sacramento intersection.
One goal of the 4.3-mile extension, agency officials said, is to give commuters in Elk Grove and south Sacramento an alternative to Highway 99, the most congested freeway in the region, as well as to lighten the load on Interstate 5.
"The advantage of this (station) location is we are adjacent to Highway 99 at the point where 99 becomes a rush-hour bottleneck," RT General Manager Mike Wiley said.
The project puts rail transit at the doorstep of a city that is expected to remain as one of the fastest-growing in the region, Wiley said.
The extension is similar to light rail's first suburban expansion seven years ago to Folsom, where park-and-ride lots are full and peak-period trains are standing room only, he said.
An estimated 40,000 Elk Grove residents currently travel daily to work outside that city, including many to downtown Sacramento and work centers in Rancho Cordova, officials said. Transportation planners say computer analyses show that if a few thousand of them take light rail, it could produce a measurable improvement in average freeway speeds during peak hours.
"We are freeing up freeway space for goods movement, we're improving air quality, we're providing options," said Elk Grove Vice Mayor Patrick Hume. "If you're going to a show or a ballgame (downtown), it provides a definite option rather than have to battle traffic and find parking."
Elk Grove's e-tran will continue its freeway commuter bus service, he said, and also will link to the college light-rail station.
The extension, which will run south from the existing Meadowview station, will provide a 30-minute ride between the college and K Street downtown. RT may provide some limited-stop express service, making the journey five minutes faster.
The target opening date is September 2015. A parking garage also is being built at the college for commuters and students.
In its own effort to reduce south county congestion, the state Department of Transportation has been widening Highway 99 for short distances between some ramps, but it is hampered by the freeway's tight confines.
Caltrans also plans a $130 million carpool lane on I-5 from Elk Grove to downtown Sacramento, but that is unlikely to get under way until 2018.
Transportation officials say an expanded light-rail system is seen as an important supplement to freeways as the region grows.
The light-rail extension was initially planned to open several years ago but was delayed by the economic downturn. With finances improving, RT officials say they will increase service this year, and they are stockpiling a reserve fund for the new line.
The agency still faces some financial uncertainty. The federal government has agreed to provide $135 million for the project and is expected to sign a funding agreement with RT late this year. But Congress has delayed finalizing its transportation funding program.
Until that happens, "it is not a done deal, obviously," RT's Wiley said.
But officials said they are confident enough to move forward with construction of two bridges for the project now. Together, the bridges will cost $22 million. RT will use a combination of state transportation infrastructure funds and local transportation funds, including sales tax revenues.
RT will hire a contractor to begin laying tracks once it signs a federal funding agreement.
Aides to Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, said they expect that to happen soon. "I will continue to work with the administration to make sure they realize that this is a priority project for our region," Matsui said at a bridge groundbreaking ceremony last week.
The project's $270 million price tag includes the costs of the bridges as well as land purchases, flood control work, two pedestrian bridges, a bike and pedestrian trail along Cosumnes River Boulevard, habitat conservation work and a gas line retaining wall.
One bridge will carry tracks over Morrison and Union House creeks and Union Pacific tracks west of the Franklin Boulevard and Cosumnes River Boulevard intersection.
The second bridge is an intersection flyover at Bruceville Road and Cosumnes River Boulevard at the north edge of the campus.
Sacramento City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell said the extension will help connect the existing Meadowview area to the college and make it easier to get downtown.
"A lot of people in my community depend on public transportation," she said. "The Blue Line to CRC gives working people, young people and seniors more transportation choices."
The line also is expected to relieve some of the added congestion expected when developers ultimately build a series of planned subdivisions at the southern tip of Sacramento, east of I-5.