Science center, downtown streetcar funding push is on

Downtown Sacramento’s $477 million arena megaproject is well underway. The question now is whether officials can successfully launch two other major projects downtown that have struggled for financing, an $89 million Powerhouse Science Center on the riverfront and a $150 million streetcar line connecting Sacramento and West Sacramento.

One of them, the science center, appears to be weeks away from clearing its final financing hurdle after a tough six-year battle to cobble together public and private support. The streetcar project, however, in the works for nearly a decade, faces a potential make-or-break moment next spring when advocates likely will ask downtown residents and property owners to vote on a $30 million tax on properties within three blocks of the proposed line.

Construction on the science and environmental museum on the banks of the Sacramento River just north of Old Sacramento could start as soon as early 2015, said Michele Wong, chair of the nonprofit’s governing board, with phase one finished 18 months later. The project’s second phase would include rehabilitating the massive stone PG&E powerhouse on that site.

The center will replace the smaller Discovery Museum on Auburn Boulevard, and is envisioned as the northern anchor of a “museum row” that would include the California State Railroad Museum, a planned railroad technology museum in the downtown railyard and the Crocker Art Museum.

On Monday, the center’s board will vote to go to market on a $25 million bond sale for construction funds. To back those bonds up, the center has won a $7 million funding commitment from the city of Sacramento, and more than $10 million in contributions from local businesses, including Aerojet Gencorp, SMUD and Quorum Technologies.

One piece of the funding is still hanging: The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors balked last week at proposal to help fund the science center, the streetcar line, and contribute additional money to parks, with its members saying they wanted to consider each of those requests separately. The board is expected to take up the science center request on its own on Nov. 4 for a $7 million commitment, paid over 20 years.

County Executive Brad Hudson is recommending board approval. “We feel strongly about (the museum project). It is going to support economic development efforts, tourism, and local education objectives.”

The proposed streetcar line’s financial picture is less clear, and headed into critical months.

The proponents, the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento, and Regional Transit, have been told by federal transportation officials the federal government likely will pay for half of the project’s estimated $150 million cost if local officials come up with the other half.

The city of West Sacramento has already passed a local tax measure that could supply $25 million. The city of Sacramento is likely to kick in $7 million. The county is being asked to contribute about $3 million, and the state $10 million.

That leaves $30 million that officials say needs to come from the private sector. Sacramento is pitching the idea of a special tax district downtown. Owners of property within three blocks of the streetcar line would pay an annual tax based on the level of economic benefit they are expected to receive by having the streetcars nearby. The rail line would cross the Tower Bridge, run past the arena, the downtown depot and the convention center. There are about 1,200 parcels near the line, owned by several hundred companies and individuals.

Under state law, only registered voters in the area are allowed to decide whether or not to create the financing district. But many of them are renters, not property owners. So streetcar proponents and property owners are considering conducting two votes. They’d start with an “advisory” vote of the property owners. If that group agrees to pay the tax, a second vote would take place among registered voters who live near the line. If both groups approve, Sacramento officials will push for federal funding as early as 2016.

But there is another hitch. Downtown property owners want the existing light rail train line moved off of the K Street Mall as part of the project. The plan would be to relocate light rail to H Street, freeing up K Street for the smaller, slower and more pedestrian-friendly streetcars.

Project managers are looking at some cost cutting to do that and still keep the budget at $150 million. That has some downtown property owners wondering whether the streetcar line will be robust enough to be successful. Chris Worden of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership said his group, which represents many property owners, supports the streetcar as an economic development tool, but said, before voting, “we want to know what parts of the project will be lost with the cost cuts.”

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