Elk Grove commuter question: To ride light rail or not?

Riders board e-tran, a bus dedicated for riders from Elk Grove, at Seventh Street and the K Street Mall.
Riders board e-tran, a bus dedicated for riders from Elk Grove, at Seventh Street and the K Street Mall. Sacramento Bee file

Every weekday, a fleet of green e-tran buses makes the freeway trek from Elk Grove, delivering 1,000 commuters to state jobs in downtown Sacramento. It’s been that way since Elk Grove, a fledgling city with a fierce independent streak, broke away from Sacramento Regional Transit a decade ago, saying it wasn’t getting its money’s worth in service from the bigger transit agency.

Now, with Regional Transit opening a light-rail extension to Elk Grove’s doorstep this fall, essentially overlapping e-trans’ commute service, the city faces a tough question: Should it disband its commuter lines, and use the buses to drop passengers off at the new light-rail station at Cosumnes River College?

That proposal, offered last month by city officials, prompted an outcry from many riders. Some said they would refuse to ride light rail because they consider the trains dirty and crime-ridden. Others expressed concern about the added time and hassle of having to ride both a bus and a train for a 15-mile commute.

“It doesn’t make sense to us,” said state worker and e-tran rider Phyllis Nahale, who presented the city with 300 signatures in opposition. She refuses to take light rail. “It is taking us out of the way. We have to wait for bus, then wait for light rail.”

Robert Souza, who moderates Elk Grove Laguna Forums, an online community focused on city issues, says sentiment on his forum is running roughly 4-to-1 against the proposed changes, with a common message: “It is either e-tran or else we will have to take our cars.”

Elk Grove city officials say the protests have prompted them to rethink their options. “Perhaps changing (bus service) as drastically as the proposal isn’t right right now,” e-tran head Jean Foletta said. “We need to go back and come up with some other options.”

Elk Grove will hold a public workshop at 6 p.m. Thursday at Elk Grove City Council Chambers, 8400 Laguna Palms Way, to discuss the issue. Foletta said she would like to offer the City Council some recommendations in May.

“Nothing is set in stone at this point,” said Kristyn Nelson, Elk Grove spokeswoman. “We’re working hard to collect public feedback.”

Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis supports light-rail service and said he thinks many residents ultimately will use it. But he said he is inclined to wait until the train service at Cosumnes River College is up and running before making any major decisions on bus routes.

“My sense is that we will wait until the south line opens, then assess user preference after that,” he said. “It’s hard to make this decision based on anticipating what people are going to do.”

The light-rail extension, scheduled to open in early September, is hailed by RT and south county leaders as a benefit to college students, and an important option to the worsening traffic congestion on Interstate 5 and especially on Highway 99, the most clogged freeway in the region. Light rail also is expected to serve upcoming growth in the Delta Shores development of south Sacramento, the county’s Vineyard area, and in Elk Grove.

The new 4.3-mile extension between Meadowview and the college will provide a direct line to downtown Sacramento and will be RT’s second light-rail extension into the suburbs. The first, to Folsom in 2005, was generally well-received. Many of those riders were commuters who switched from driving, not from buses.

RT officials said the service will be robust. Daily trains will run from 5 a.m. to midnight at 15-minute intervals until 7:30 p.m., and every 30 minutes after that. Estimated travel time on light rail from the college to the 16th Street station in downtown Sacramento is 28 minutes, RT officials said. From the college to Eighth and K streets, it is expected to be 36 minutes.

If demand is high for trains, RT General Manager Mike Wiley said his agency will add “limited stop” service during commute hours, cutting five minutes off the travel time between Cosumnes River College and 16th Street.

Those travel times compare favorably with Elk Grove bus travel times, which can range from 30 minutes to more than an hour, depending on where a rider boards, and at what time of day. But Elk Grove commuters considering the train also must factor in travel time, either via bus or car, to the light-rail station.

Light-rail riders will be allowed to park anywhere on the college campus, including a new garage near the station. College parking is $2 a day. The fee at the RT lot at the new Franklin station likely will be $1 a day.

RT head Wiley said his agency expects a mix of drivers, students and bus riders to switch to the trains. He said RT has assumed Elk Grove would keep some of its commuter buses running into downtown. If Elk Grove decides not to add e-tran feeder buses to the college or Franklin stations, RT has enough seed money to maintain 15-minute service while train ridership grows, he said.

For the city of Elk Grove, the financial issues appear trickier than they are for RT.

E-tran in its early years suffered with accounting and financial management issues, leading to a critical audit in 2011. Those problems have been fixed, officials say, but the city’s transit fund, which mainly supports e-tran, remains $7.4 million in debt, with no decision yet on how that money will be repaid. The city has dipped into its general fund annually the last five years for $5.3 million to help e-tran, mainly for indirect administrative costs, but also for help lowering its debt.

City officials are sponsoring a state law change that would enable them to tap into what they say is their fair share of county transportation sales tax to strengthen e-tran financially. E-tran officials also plan to hire an outside consultant this spring to conduct a “comprehensive operational analysis” of the bus agency, including sticking around to offer advice after the trains start rolling in September.

For the moment, the fear factor looms large among e-tran riders. At a recent public meeting, some were blunt in saying they feared for their safety if they rode the train. Elk Grove City Councilman Darren Suen also attended the meeting.

“What I heard loud and clear is that the perception of light rail is that it’s unsafe, it’s unclean and it’s inconvenient,” Suen said. The question, he said, is “How do we make it safe, clean and more convenient? That’s what we need to shoot for, but we’re going to need regional help. We’re going to need RT’s help.”

Norm Leong, a Sacramento city police officer and head of RT’s security force, said he plans to attend the upcoming Elk Grove forum to answer questions about crime, which he says is low, given the number of stations and trains the agency runs. He attributes that in part to onboard cameras that help the agency make arrests. The agency employs a force of 28 sworn law enforcement officers, some from the Sacramento Police Department, some from the county Sheriff’s Department, along with non-sworn, private guards.

RT has come under fire recently, however, from several Sacramento business leaders for its shortcomings. That group, including downtown developers and affiliates of the Sacramento Kings, has begun to work with RT on marketing, security performance and image.

Mayor Davis said he thinks Elk Grove commuters will embrace the trains over time, but that the real success story will be if and when light rail gets extended into the heart of the city, making the line more convenient for residents.

“We’re going to make the case very aggressively that we should be at the head of the line” for further light-rail expansions, Davis said. “At the end of the day, it needs to be convenient for folks.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059, and Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040

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