Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Streetcar voters couldn’t see where we’re going

In Atlanta, a painted message on the street alerts pedestrians to a streetcar ahead. In Sacramento, voters have defeated Measure B, which would have funded streetcars in the urban core.
In Atlanta, a painted message on the street alerts pedestrians to a streetcar ahead. In Sacramento, voters have defeated Measure B, which would have funded streetcars in the urban core. AP

Being against something is a lot easier than being for something, but last week Sacramento took this sad take on human nature to an extreme.

The proposition of seeking cleaner air by getting more people out of their automobiles and into electric streetcars was beaten at the polls through a combination of apathy, negativity and purposeful confusion.

The defeat of Measure B – which would have funded streetcars to move people around the urban core of the state capital – was a twisted tale of how Sacramento stumbled on the way to a future for which it is not ready.

Those promoting Measure B – a group led by Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen – did not think through how to sell city residents on a critical truth: that Sacramento is already experiencing urban gridlock and air pollution that will worsen in the next 20 years unless someone figures out how to move people around better.

By the time ballots were counted last week, promoters of Measure B had only given themselves two months to raise awareness about how downtown and midtown Sacramento are terribly suited to cope with the kind of traffic that is coming this way as Sacramento grows.

Opponents had it easy in that Measure B supporters had to get a two-thirds majority so the city could set up a financing district that would raise $30 million of the $150 million need to make streetcar project happen. Only 1,333 people spread across midtown and downtown Sacramento even bothered to vote – with the “no” votes narrowly winning 674 to 656.

“The No on B people had a much more aggressive campaign,” said Luis Sumpter, a Realtor and past president of the Alkali and Mansion Flats Historic Neighborhood Association. How did naysayers prevail when they opposed greater public transit and cleaner air? By scaring people into thinking that property owners who largely would pay for the streetcars would pass on those costs to their tenants.

A building owner himself, Sumpter didn’t see this was a legitimate fear – but it spread anyway.

“I own a building, but what I would pay (to help finance the streetcars) was nominal,” he said. “But that message didn’t get out there as strongly or prevalently as it should have.”

Other fears were that the city wouldn’t be able to pay for the streetcars and that they would actually cause more traffic.

“We already have an existing regional transit system,” said Sean Wright, the current president of the Alkali Flats group. “The arguments by the pro B side were weak arguments. Some of my neighbors saw our community bearing the costs but not getting any of the benefits.”

Millions of dollars in federal, state and Sacramento County money had already been lined up or identified and needed a positive vote from a sliver of the city of Sacramento, the proposed tax district of property owners whose buildings are along the route of the proposed 3.3-mile streetcar route.

Why are streetcars needed in Sacramento as opposed to more buses or more Regional Transit lines? Because Sacramento is a car-dependent city.

If you want to run an errand between midtown, downtown or across the river to West Sacramento, few effective routes get you there in a timely manner. Just try riding your bike from midtown to the Amtrak station without taking your life into your hands.

Meanwhile, existing bus and Regional Transit lines are designed by their route and fare structures to move people longer distances. They are not so good at moving people short distances within neighborhoods that are growing rapidly. Besides, many Sacramentans have negative opinions of what they see as dirty, unsafe existing public transit options anyway.

Why are streetcars needed at all?

Try driving down 16th Street between P and J streets during rush hour. Gridlock is being fed by shimmering new midtown apartments and condos sprouting up in a movement that will not stop anytime soon.

The city has a goal of adding 10,000 new housing units downtown in the next 10 years. If you don’t believe this growth is coming, then you likely harbor some misplaced yearning for a Sacramento that is gone and never coming back.

Repopulating an urban core abandoned 40 years ago when people fled to the suburbs is already underway: Downtown properties are hot. Midtown and R Street are booming. It’s a matter of time before the old downtown railyard sprouts to life.

What is there to debate here?

The vote to reject Measure B last week was a head-in-the-sand moment that makes the city of Sacramento look small.

“I’m spoiled because the voters of West Sacramento have never once said ‘no’ to big ideas, to taking a chance on making real change for the better, and to paying for it,” wrote Christopher Cabaldon, mayor of West Sacramento, on his Facebook page. “I’d hoped we might inspire the handful of voters in the very narrow district across the river to get beyond cynicism, skepticism, and paralysis. … But no, not tonight.”

West Sacramento voters had already chosen to tax themselves to make streetcars happen, a commitment that would contribute $25 million for streetcars that would start at City Hall there. They would go past Raley Field, a Bridge District bursting with new housing and then cross the Tower Bridge. Then it would pass Old Sacramento, the downtown train depot, the downtown arena, convention center, Memorial Auditorium, the state Capitol and into midtown.

Sacramento County officials had pledged $3 million to help make this happen – no minor achievement. The further you get from downtown Sacramento, the more some county political interests wondered why the heck they should commit money to transportation in the downtown. Yet County Supervisor Phil Serna and others made it happen. Serna described himself as angry by a Measure B campaign “that seemed hollow.” He was frustrated by the result and said the $3 million from the county might not be there anymore.

“The county's continued participation is not guaranteed as a plan for Plan B may or may not materialize,” Serna said.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, has been working for years to make streetcars happen, including enlisting the help of U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

The state of California was poised to contribute $10 million to streetcars. The city of Sacramento would contribute $7 million. With all that money in place, $75 million of streetcar funding would come from federal grants.

Now what?

According to an exhaustive study by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the population that lives nearest the streetcar route in Sacramento will grow 167 percent between 2008 and 2035 – from approximately 4,500 residents to nearly 12,000. The area of West Sacramento serviced by the proposed trolley line will grow 770 percent in the same time period – from 831 residents to 7,227.

SACOG projects that by 2035, traffic on the Tower Bridge will increase 73 percent during morning rush hour and 87 percent in the afternoon. The Pioneer Bridge will see similar increases, and the proposed C Street bridge will be packed as well. Highway 50 in both directions will be far more crowded than today.

Larry F. Greene, executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality District, estimated that the streetcar project would eliminate 53,043 vehicle-miles traveled per day – which would prevent 25.5 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the environment.

Millennials moving into Sacramento say they want to get out of their cars and use transit. Getting more people out of their cars is good for everyone. And yet, Sacramento couldn’t make it happen last week.

It was not a proud moment.