Beyond Sacramento

You asked, we answered: Why doesn’t the SacRT light rail go to the airport?

This story is part of our “Beyond Sacramento” series, where you vote on questions and topics about our region submitted by readers, and The Sacramento Bee explores the winning question for a story. Scroll down in this article to vote for our next story or submit a new question.

This question, submitted by Lilly Allen, won our last voting round: “Why doesn’t RT go to the airport? Like, it obviously really should, and it’s easy but nope. Whyyy?”

Lilly Allen loves the Sacramento International Airport, but hates how she has to get there.

Seven to 10 times a year, the midtown resident makes the drive, or takes a Lyft, or hails a cab to the airport. Sometimes, she begs a friend to drive her to save money. The Yolobus runs only once an hour, far too infrequent to be used practically, Allen said.

“None of it is good,” she said.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The day Sacramento Regional Transit rolled out its starting 18.3 miles of track on March 12, 1987, officials were already drawing up plans for the light rail’s future expansion toward the Sacramento International Airport (then just a metropolitan airport).

The goal was that by 2002, a line would extend seven miles north along Interstate 5 into Natomas at a cost of about $101 million, according to a 1987 Bee article.

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And after that, another $56 million extension would be built to “pick up from the end of the Natomas line and run along the north side of I-5 to Sacramento Metropolitan Airport,” The Bee reported in 1987.

Some of those planned expansions have come to fruition: a line to Cosumnes River College, a 1-mile line north of downtown toward the American River.

But more than 30 years later, a light rail line in Natomas, let alone to the airport, has yet to materialize. The project depends on a balance of federal, state and local money – and federal funds for the project were put on hold in 2008 during the Great Recession, said SacRT spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez.

Now the cost of building such a line to the airport is $1 billion. Sacramento transit officials launched environmental studies for the line back in 2015. Later this year, SacRT plans to submit an environmental impact report to federal agencies, Gonzalez said.

And SacRT is gearing up for a transit sales tax to be put on the 2020 ballot, which could help generate enough money for the agency to secure matching funds from the federal and state governments.

SacRT exec Henry Li previously told The Bee he believes it is possible to get the necessary funding trifecta, but the uncertainty level is high.

“Once we can secure funding, which we hope can be in the near future,” construction would take three to five years, Gonzalez said in an email.

Best-case scenario? Tracks are laid down and trains are running by 2030.


In the meantime, SacRT has been working toward launching a frequent zero-emission shuttle connecting the airport with downtown Sacramento. The agency plans to launch that it “early next year,” according to Gonzalez.

Though it may not seem intuitive, plenty of rail systems around the country don’t initially run lines easily connecting passengers and travelers to regional airports.

Los Angeles recently approved $4.9 billion toward an elevated train that would carry passengers in and out of LAX to nearby ground transportation hubs. Trains will be up and running by March 2023, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Bay Area Rapid Transit opened its BART connector line to Oakland International Airport only in 2014, at the cost of about $500 million. Early on, the line struggled to recoup its building costs, reported The San Francisco Chronicle. A representative in 2017 said that rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft had unexpectedly dampened the connector’s success.

But Allen said if a light rail line were built in Sacramento, she’d drop Lyft in a heartbeat. “Climate change is the number one issue, and we shouldn’t have to rely on a car” to travel, she said.

“The fact that we don’t have any regular public transit (to the airport) when we have this giant flat highway,” Allen said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, come on!’”

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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