Sacramento’s light-rail train system has long been an afterthought for many commuters, unused and even disdained. Now, with an entertainment and sports arena under construction downtown, business leaders are calling on Sacramento Regional Transit to take steps now to make its service an inviting option for arena-goers.
“While RT does many things well, there are a number of issues of significant concern that discourage ridership, such as public safety, station cleanliness and poor customer service,” the group said in a six-page memo to RT this week.
The group, which includes Sacramento Kings co-owner Mark Friedman and Republic FC soccer team founder Warren Smith, will brief the RT board Monday about its concerns, and ask RT to partner with business leaders on transit improvements over the next 20 months before the arena opens.
The goal, said developer David Taylor, whose offices at the U.S. Bank Tower overlook the arena site, is to take advantage of the moment to turn transit into a real option for people who otherwise would come into downtown days, nights and weekends in cars. He said he is embarrassed as a downtown developer not to have paid much attention previously to RT, which operates an aged and unsightly light-rail station across the street from his high-rise office.
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City officials have estimated that 7 percent of Kings basketball game attendees will use light rail. RT officials have said they believe that number could be much higher, if service is good. The arena site at Sixth and K streets sits next to the central point in RT’s light-rail system, where lines from Folsom, North Sacramento and south Sacramento converge.
But there has been growing concern among some about how the system’s reputation and limited service levels will affect ridership. Smith, whose Republic FC soccer organization hopes to build a soccer stadium next to a light-rail stop in the downtown railyard, said he is worried, but hopeful. Thousands of people will consider transit as a possibility for the first time, he said, and service needs to be good on day one, otherwise first-timers will be turned off.
“I’m scared to death that we won’t have a system that actually meets the needs of our clients long term,” Smith said.
Safety and security improvements will be critical, business leaders and RT officials said.
RT, which has a police detail made up of Sacramento police and county sheriff’s deputies, has long dealt with complaints about people smoking, drinking alcohol, being loud or fighting. The most common crime complaints involve “grab and run” thefts of cellphones and tablets. The agency’s image took a hit last year with two fatal shootings. In once case, police shot a knife-wielding man. Another shooting occurred apparently between strangers.
Many Kings games start at 7 p.m. during fall and winter months and end after 9:30 p.m. Tina Thomas, a downtown attorney, rides light rail but not at night.
“I don’t mind riding during the day at all, but evenings, I just don’t feel safe,” she said. “I think there needs to a higher sense of security on the trains.”
RT board Chairman Phil Serna, a Sacramento County supervisor who convened the business panel a few months ago, called their recommendations “brutally honest” and timely.
RT General Manager Mike Wiley, as well, acknowledged his agency needs to improve, and has been taking steps to prepare for the arena opening. That includes resuming talks in recent weeks with the Kings on ways to improve service on arena event nights. Wiley has said the agency needs to have additional trains lined up and ready to go when arena events are over, and has talked about linking arena and train tickets so that people do not have to purchase them at ticket machines. Kings President Chris Granger called transit a critical component to getting people to and from the arena.
Wiley said he welcomes any help the business community is willing to offer.
“For RT to become more engaged with a particular sector of the business and development community, it is extremely welcome,” Wiley said. “We are in agreement with what they are suggesting we need to do. It is just a matter of how we find the resources to do it.”
RT was hit hard financially during the recent recession, and it drastically reduced service and maintenance at stations. The agency has slowly been boosting service and increasing its policing recently, but it does not have money to yet for robust moves, Wiley said. About one-quarter of the agency’s funding comes from passenger fares. The rest comes from a variety of general taxes and state and federal transportation programs.
The report is the second critical outside review of RT operations in recent months. The agency launched its own analysis last year, inviting transit and security experts from other cities to recommend improvements.
Steve Hansen, downtown City Council member and RT board member, said RT improvements should not be focused solely on the arena. He suggested RT, business leaders and regional leaders need to focus on systemwide transit improvements, including creating infill growth areas near transit that make the system more usable.
“The arena is just a shiny object to use (as a catalyst),” he said. “But the issue is bigger than the arena. This is an opportunity to get our heads wrapped around what we should be doing” for transit regionally.
Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.
Members of the business group calling for RT improvements: Mark Friedman, David Taylor, Warren Smith, Tina Thomas, Larry Kelley, Michael Heller, Steve Goodwin, Dain Domich, Ali Youssefi, Roger Kittredge, Michael Ault, Dion Dwyer