Will Trump keep federal promises for Sacramento streetcar funding?

Are streetcars faster than pedestrians?

A ride on the Portland streetcars shows that streetcars are not fast, but they are faster than walking.
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A ride on the Portland streetcars shows that streetcars are not fast, but they are faster than walking.

Sacramento officials say they will push forward again this year on efforts to build a downtown streetcar line – with fingers crossed that the new presidential administration in Washington, D.C., will look favorably on their request for critical federal funds.

Local proponents have heard no word on whether president-elect Donald Trump and Congress will honor existing federal commitments to help fund a streetcar in Sacramento and in West Sacramento, but say they don’t see any evidence the new administration won’t.

Sacramento previously won support from the Obama administration to provide $75 million in federal funds to help built a $150 million project, although no formal grant agreement can be signed until Sacramento can secure local match money. This year, proponents say they plan to amend that request, asking the Federal Transit Administration to up its contribution to $100 million for a bigger $200 million project.

The goal is to break ground in 2018 on a 4.2-mile line that would cross Tower Bridge, connecting the two cities. Sacramento’s streetcar is one of a handful of local transit projects around the country that are listed for likely federal funds under an ongoing federal program called “New Starts.”

“We don’t know the impact of the new administration,” West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said. “We are watching this carefully.”

Donald Trump’s policy statements on his websites have mentioned the need to fix highways, bridges, airports and tunnels, railroads and ports as priorities, but neither he nor his transition team have offered details.

Moreover, the Trump funding focus has been on giving tax credits to private companies to build infrastructure that the private sector can operate for profit. That approach would not work for projects like a streetcar or for local road repairs because those are public utilities that are not profitable.

The Trump transition team and Elaine Chao, Trump’s nominee for transportation secretary, did not respond to Bee requests for comment.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who was key to getting Sacramento lined up for the potential $75 million in federal transit funding, said this week that she will continue to push to seal the deal.

“With a change in the administration, I’m hopeful that we will see continued federal support,” Matsui said in an email to The Bee on Wednesday. “But we will need to be persistent in maintaining a strong partnership at all levels in order to continue our progress.”

The planned streetcar rail line would circle past key destinations in the two cities, including Raley Field and the burgeoning Bridge District in West Sacramento, and Old Sacramento, the rail depot, office buildings, Golden 1 Center, the Capitol, the Sacramento Convention Center, hotels and nightspots in downtown Sacramento.

The project cannot formally qualify for the federal funds until Sacramento comes up with sufficient local matching funds, something Sacramento has failed to do for each of the past two years.

City planning official Fedolia Harris said he believes the city will be able to nail down the final local funds by midyear.

That includes asking the City Council on Thursday to OK using $3 million in previously approved city funds to continue design and engineering for the line.

The next big step likely will come later this month when Sacramento Regional Transit’s board of directors will be asked to commit $25 million in state bond money toward getting the project built.

RT obtained that state money from voter-approved Prop. 1A with the requirement that it be spent to connect local transit to the planned California high-speed rail project. The expectation, local officials said, is that the streetcar line would connect with a future bullet train station that is tentatively planned above Seventh Street in the downtown railyard.

Another key moment is likely to occur in May or June. Sacramento city officials say they will ask owners of large commercial properties or buildings within three blocks of the proposed line in downtown Sacramento to vote to set up a “community facilities district,” essentially a taxing mechanism, to raise $2 million annually to help pay for part of the ongoing operations and maintenance costs for the line once it is up and running.

No residential properties downtown will be involved in the vote, nor will their owners or residents pay the annual tax, Harris said. The vote, as currently conceived, would involve about 350 larger commercial properties downtown, he said. Those would be parcels that are either 12,600 square feet in size or some smaller parcels that have buildings that are 40,000 square feet or larger.

A previous vote the city conducted of residents of the rail line area failed in 2015. That vote would have required all property owners within three blocks of the line, both residential and commercial, to pay the tax.

The decision to increase the project price to $200 million involves adding several elements. That includes the cost of moving light rail off of K Street and onto H Street to declutter K Street and make streetcar movement easier. It also includes designing the streetcar line between Sacramento and Raley Field in a way that would allow light-rail trains to run to a new station at the ballpark for special events. And it includes a spur streetcar line that would run south from the Tower Bridge along the West Sacramento waterfront to a burgeoning new neighborhood and to a maintenance or storage site.

Streetcars, smaller, less expensive and more nimble than light-rail trains, have gained cachet in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and other cities as a way to boost land values, add energy to downtown street life, reduce the number of cars on the streets and reduce parking needs.

Several critics counter that streetcars are not needed, will get in the way of car drivers, and could end up costing more to operate than city officials believe, risking diversion of city funds from other uses.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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