Trolley car question: Who will pay?

More than a half-century after streetcars disappeared from local thoroughfares, leaders in Sacramento and West Sacramento want to bring them back to help reshape downtown as a more convenient and vibrant place to live, work and play. But to do it, they likely will need financial help from hundreds of property owners.

Will downtown business interests, only now recovering from the recession, buy into the trolley idea, especially if they are asked to dig into their own pocketbooks? The answer depends on whether they decide streetcars really would be a boon for downtown, or whether they see the idea as too trendy and costly.

Developer Mark Friedman is already sold. His Fulcrum Property company is building townhouses in West Sacramento just south of Tower Bridge, and he is counting on trolley cars whisking residents over the bridge to offices in downtown Sacramento. Friedman and several other property owners near Raley Field already have put millions of dollars into a fund to finance the streetcar.

“It opens up an entirely new marketplace of people who want to live in denser urban environments where it is possible to walk and bike and get around without using your car as frequently,” Friedman said. “The money I invest in the streetcar system reduces the amount of money I have to invest in parking structures.”

The streetcar push has strong local government support, including from the Sacramento and West Sacramento city councils, as well as Regional Transit and Yolo Transit.

Several years in the works, the plan is to build a 3.3-mile starter line and have it up and running in the next three years. Streetcars would run at 10-minute intervals from West Capitol Avenue in West Sacramento, past Raley Field, over Tower Bridge and through downtown and midtown Sacramento, including stops at Old Sacramento, the rail depot, the proposed arena site, and the convention center.

The price tag: a hefty $130 million to $150 million.

The two cities are hoping to persuade the federal government to pay for half of the cost. Local leaders say U.S. Department of Transportation officials have privately told them Sacramento must show that all key Sacramento players are supportive, and that local businesses are willing to help out financially.

Last week, the two cities won a $5 million grant from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to do detailed planning work in preparation for a larger federal grant application next summer. That includes reaching out to property owners in the coming months about the possibility of creating a streetcar financing district that might be made up of properties within three blocks of the planned streetcar line, said Fedolia Harris, one of the city of Sacramento officials on the project. Under one likely scenario, owners of those properties would be asked to contribute some startup money for the line.

Richard Rich, whose development company, Mosaic, recently partnered to buy the historic Fruit Building at Fourth and J streets, said he heard a pitch from streetcar advocates last week, and came away with plenty of questions to be answered before he would consider chipping in to help: Is the price right? Can it be built without cost overruns other cities have faced? And, will it be designed with users foremost in mind?

“A streetcar could be magnificent, (or) it can fail,” Rich said. “Sacramentans have to decide for themselves whether the plans satisfy the consumer, whether they are accurately (priced), and whether it can be run effectively. Then we get to the issue of the financing district.”

Advocates said streetcars would stop every few blocks, offering easy access to stores, offices and entertainment venues. Such convenience could in turn boost business and property values near the streetcar line. Supporters say streetcars would mesh with the existing transportation system: Cars and light rail trains would deliver people downtown, and the streetcars would ferry them around once they got there.

To help guide the project, planners last week hosted officials and businesspeople from Portland, the city that launched the nation’s first successful streetcar revival project a dozen years ago. One of them, developer John Carroll, who has built lofts near the streetcar line in that city’s Pearl District, warned that Sacramento is embarking on an effort that will take decades to bring a full return.

“You’re looking 10, 20 years down the road,” he told a group of local leaders last week. “There is not a lot of immediate gratification.”

Yet Portland businessman Mike Powell, owner of Powell’s Books, said he saw an immediate, positive effect on his business when the streetcars arrived in Portland. They stop on both sides of his blocklong store.

“I can’t say my business went up 20 percent because of it, but I just see people getting off it and coming into my store,” Powell said. “It adds eyes on the street. They aren’t driving. They are looking out the window. They see your business.”

Powell said one interesting irony he’s noted with Portland’s streetcars is that they barely go faster than pedestrians, because they deal with traffic, red lights and frequent stops. It’s left him wondering why people hop on the trolley, but they do, he said. “Last in year in Portland, 5 million people opted not to walk.”

Planners say choosing the right route will be critical in determining whether the rail line can be a success. Planners have fiddled with the route for several years, and recently published a plan that has trolleys running on what is now the light rail train line on the K Street Mall, as well as closer to Old Sacramento, and as far east as 19th Street in midtown.

To make room on K Street, city and RT officials say they are talking about moving light rail operations off of K Street and onto H Street three blocks north.