Sacramento light rail headed off to college

After nearly a decade of struggles, Sacramento Regional Transit’s Blue Line light-rail extension project – the line that will land trains at Cosumnes River College’s front door – is now full throttle.

The local bus and rail agency is up against a “use it or lose it” $135 million federal deadline. Either it has trains rolling in one year – by Sept. 6, 2015 – or risks losing the federal financial backing that has made the project possible.

“The schedule is tight,” RT project manager Ed Scofield said this week. “But we feel comfortable we can open on that date.”

A new station is taking shape fronting the campus on Bruceville Road, to be used by students as well as south county workers who want to avoid Highway 99 on downtown commutes. Crews are pouring concrete a mile away near Franklin Boulevard at another new station site, and rail track is being laid behind subdivisions along nearby Strawberry Creek. A campus parking garage for students and commuters is finished and open for use. The curving bridge that will carry trains over Cosumnes River Boulevard is nearly complete.

If RT stays on pace, the new line could open a month or two before the September date, in time for the start of next year’s fall semester, officials say. If RT doesn’t make the Federal Transit Administration deadline? “You can negotiate,” Scofield said, “but they don’t make it easy on you.”

The project has been a decade in the making, delayed by recession, design issues and bureaucratic hurdles, including several years of work to get federal officials to agree to fund half of the $270 million project’s cost. RT has cobbled together the local share through several state grants and Sacramento County transportation sales tax funds.

Federal Transit Administration officials, who have been monitoring the project, expressed confidence last week that the project is on solid footing and reconfirmed their support for RT’s efforts in an email. “Barring unforeseen complications, the Sacramento Blue Line extension project is on time, on budget, and expected to meet the scheduled opening date of September 6, 2015, as agreed to in our construction grant agreement.”

The 4.3-mile extension is the most ambitious since RT built the first light-rail line in the 1980s, and one of the most difficult, RT General Manager Mike Wiley said, partly because of the federal funding hoops, and partly because the project had to squeeze through a neighborhood just south of Meadowview Road. The agency had to purchase slices of four dozen backyards in south Sacramento a few years ago, paying on average $7,500 to each homeowner, to make room for the tracks after Union Pacific insisted light-rail trains stay 50 feet from the freight tracks. On previous projects, UP had allowed light- rail trains to be 20 feet from freight trains.

RT faces still another potential added financial question involving its federal government sponsors. The agency may have to pay up to $100,000 to replace parts of a Pacific Gas and Electric valve lot that was relocated to make room for the tracks. Federal officials require that the project meet “Buy America” standards, but some valve parts at the relocated PG&E site have not been certified as made in America. RT officials say they knew that when they relocated the lot, but felt they could not stop and wait for a federal ruling on their petition for relief.

“We were in this Catch-22,” Scofield said. “We felt we had to keep moving forward or miss our deadline.”

South county leaders say they are eager to see the project become a reality. Traffic congestion on nearby Highway 99 is now the worst in the region during commute hour. The line is expected to be busy from the start, with about 7,500 daily riders. Elk Grove officials say they will link their e-tran bus system to the college station.

“I’m excited,” said Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis. “This will be a huge amenity for our community.”

Davis said his city is planning denser, transit-friendly development south of the college on Bruceville Road. It hopes that will help RT make a stronger case for more federal funds to extend light rail into Elk Grove, including to a planned civic center, an aquatic center and a shopping mall. “We know it’s not easy to get funding,” Davis said. “We want to make sure we’re competitive.”

Cosumnes River College President Debbie Travis said the on-campus station is part of a broader ongoing effort by the Los Rios Community College District to allow easier access to higher education for the region’s students, especially students who don’t have a car or can’t afford gas for driving long distances.

Sacramento City College has a light-rail station. The district’s Rancho Cordova center is across the street from light rail. The center in Natomas is on a future light-rail line, and the one in West Sacramento is next to that city’s bus terminal. The district allows students to take classes at more than one campus at a time. A fee embedded in tuition covers the costs of students’ transit passes.

“We are starting to connect the outlying and suburban areas to the (region’s) core,” Travis said. “That is what light rail will do.”

That is a different mentality among college leaders than existed in the 1980s when the initial light-rail line was built. Sacramento State University officials then rejected proposals for a light-rail station on or near campus, citing costs and fears that it would bring “an undesirable element to campus.”

Even with the new line to Elk Grove, the region’s light-rail network remains far from complete, local transportation leaders say. RT has fielded requests for light-rail extensions to Roseville, El Dorado Hills and even Davis. But agency officials say they are focused next on a cooperative effort with the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento on a streetcar line over the Tower Bridge, and to extend rail through Natomas to Sacramento International Airport. Both of those projects are in the planning stages and will likely need federal funding support.

RT chief Wiley said the agency also hopes to build a second rail track into downtown Folsom to allow for more frequent service there.

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