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    Light-rail riders wait to board a train Tuesday in Sacramento. RT officials say Caltrans funding won’t be enough to boost service during Fix50 freeway work.

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RT head says Caltrans leaving locals in lurch during Fix50 project

Published: Thursday, Apr. 10, 2014 - 11:00 pm
Last Modified: Friday, Apr. 11, 2014 - 12:08 am

As the California Department of Transportation prepares to close several lanes of U.S. Highway 50 through downtown Sacramento, the head of the regional transit agency said Thursday that the state isn’t providing enough money to pay for the increased public transit needed to serve commuters trying to avoid lengthy traffic jams.

Sacramento Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley said he has asked Caltrans for up to $600,000 to allow RT to run extra light-rail trains and buses during the Fix50 closures, set for April 22 to June 25. Caltrans has offered less than $200,000, Wiley said, an insufficient amount that could mean some peak-hour trains will be too full to pick up all passengers on platforms.

RT is one of several transit agencies and cities that have asked for help managing the traffic and ridership impacts they say they expect to face when Caltrans closes three lanes at a time on Highway 50 downtown for road rehabilitation work. Caltrans officials have said the project could cause hourlong delays or more on local freeways during peak commute hours. The back-ups are likely to extend to Highway 99, Interstate 80 and I-5, they’ve said.

With some predictions that Highway 50 commute-hour traffic headed downtown could back up as far as Rancho Cordova, officials say they expect streets and transit lines that parallel that freeway to become congested as well. That includes Folsom Boulevard, Fair Oaks Boulevard, and RT’s light-rail Gold Line, which runs from Folsom to downtown Sacramento.

The dispute between RT and Caltrans stems from differing expectations about how much the partial road closure will disrupt commuter traffic.

Wiley said he expects the Highway 50 project to put a tighter squeeze on commuters than the Caltrans shutdown of a portion of Interstate 5 in 2008. During that project, some light-rail trains were jammed with standing riders during peak hours.

The Fix50 project gives RT a chance to shine and potentially attract some new, long-term customers.

“It is wise to assume we will see a lot of people giving us a try, and I want to make sure we are fully prepared to make it a pleasantly memorable experience,” Wiley said.

He contends that Caltrans should pay transit companies for reasonable costs they will incur to provide extra transit for commuters who want to avoid the jams. The fares paid by new riders do not cover the cost to transit agencies for the extra resources and equipment to handle the influx. Wiley and other local officials said Caltrans provided local transit agencies and cities with adequate funding during the I-5 closure.

“That’s why it is frustrating to me that Caltrans is expecting other agencies to pay to mitigate the cost of (the state’s) project,” Wiley said. “We’ve given Caltrans what we think is a good, conservative cost estimate.”

Wiley said his agency expects to add extra trains during peak hours and to bulk up security services during the closures. The agency also will send tweets alerting potential riders when park and ride lots fill, and directing them to lots have not yet filled.

Jody Jones, Caltrans local District 3 director, disagrees with Wiley. She said she thinks the Fix50 project will cause fewer headaches than the I-5 project, which involved alternately shutting down all the lanes in one direction, and then the other. “Three lanes will be open at all times,” she said. “We believe there is less impact.”

Jones said she believes she is offering transit districts an adequate amount – $505,000 to six agencies and to the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to help organize the fund allocations. RT is getting $197,000, she said.

Other agencies getting money include Elk Grove’s e-tran, Yolo Transit, El Dorado Transit, Paratransit and the North Natomas shuttle bus.

Jones said she has informed Wiley and other agencies that this is the extent of Caltrans’ financial commitment. The project’s overall budget is $46 million.

“I need to be responsible with the taxpayers’ money,” she said. “I just don’t have any more money to give.”

Jones did add, though, that she would be open to reconsidering the allocation if the traffic turns out to be worse than she expects. “If I am terribly wrong, if Mike Wiley's right, if the impacts are greater, we can talk about it at that time.”

Wiley’s comments mark the second time in two weeks that local officials publicly criticized Caltrans for what they called a lack of concern about the impacts of the state project on local agencies.

After complaints from the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento, Caltrans altered its freeway project plans, and agreed to reimburse Sacramento up to $1.3 million and West Sacramento up to $750,000 for expected costs in handling added traffic on city streets, officials in those cities said.

Submit your question for The Sacramento Bee's Fix 50 team.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

Read more articles by Tony Bizjak

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