Light rail in the Sacramento region took a big hit during the Great Recession. With the loss of jobs, especially in state government, weekday ridership dropped to 46,400 in the last quarter of 2013, from 60,500 for the same period in 2008.
In the last six weeks, two killings have taken place aboard light-rail trains in midtown Sacramento – a homicide and an apparent suicide-by-cop. These are isolated incidents and could have occurred on the street as easily as on a train.
But they add to long-standing uneasiness in the region about safety at light-rail stations and on trains. These incidents should be a wake-up call to the Regional Transit board and staff to engage with the public and take on safety issues directly.
For people to get out of their cars, they need to know that they’ll be safe while waiting for trains at stations and when they are on the trains.
If light rail is to turn ridership around, Regional Transit must deal with the perception that light rail is OK during rush hour, when work commuters are riding, but should be avoided during midday and after dark, a last-resort form of transportation.
By the numbers, Regional Transit appears to be relatively safe, with 35 reported crimes in January aboard trains, buses or at light-rail stations and bus stops. Customers also made 11 security-related reports. But this misses a whole lot, as any daily rider knows.
Regular riders see fare-jumping, harassment and intimidation, smoking of various substances, drug dealing, loitering and a variety of behaviors that make riders and potential riders uncomfortable, to say the least. They see lights out at stations, graffiti and overflowing trash cans. They see cameras blocked by trees.
Light-rail has 98 security guards, 13 transit officers who inspect for fare payment, and 22 full-time police officers and sheriff’s deputies. It doesn’t need more staff. It needs a culture change.
This organization needs to engage with commuters who have a choice between car, bus and light rail for transportation. The board and staff need to reach out to cities and communities in Sacramento County to ask riders about their experiences and non-riders why they choose not to take light rail – and make fixes.
It is not enough after two deaths to fall back on business as usual, as general manager Mike Wiley did in touting the “high level of security on the trains” and promising to “continue” to ensure safety.
Starting in May, the W-X Freeway, or Capital City Freeway, between downtown Sacramento and midtown will go from 10 lanes to five because of Caltrans construction. That will drive people to light rail, just as the I-5 boat-section construction in downtown Sacramento did in 2008.
But in the long term, this region won’t develop a light-rail culture if people don’t feel safe on the trains. Light rail is an asset as we seek to reduce congestion and improve air quality, but safety needs much more attention.