How Trump’s new budget threatens Sacramento’s streetcar future

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.

The window of opportunity is tightening on Sacramento’s streetcar hopes.

In his federal budget plan unveiled Monday, President Donald Trump proposed ending the federal funding program for new city rail projects, limiting future funds to projects that already have federal contracts.

That would put Sacramento’s streetcar dreams in an uncertain position. The city has a preliminary agreement with the federal government for $50 million, about half the amount Sacramento has been hoping the federal government will ultimately provide for the proposed $200 million streetcar. Local property owners in Sacramento have agreed to kick in a share, along with the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento.

But federal officials have not yet signed a formal full-funding grant agreement for Sacramento’s streetcar project. Congresswoman Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, and city officials are pushing for that to happen before the end of this federal fiscal year, when the Trump budget would go into effect if passed by Congress.

The proposed 4-mile streetcar rail line would run between West Sacramento and downtown Sacramento, over the Tower Bridge, with stops at West Sacramento City Hall, Raley Field, Old Sacramento, the downtown railyard, as well as along J, K and L streets.

In a statement to The Bee on Monday, Matsui said she thinks Congress still supports the project. “Nothing has changed in Congress, which is where funding decisions are made,” she wrote. “There’s still support for the Sacramento Streetcar project.”

Trump made a similar proposal in his 2017 budget. Congress, however, chose to continue funding city rail projects. The recent passage of federal tax cuts, though, is expected to put pressure on Congress to reduce spending.

Sacramento Councilman Steve Hansen, a leading streetcar proponent, said Sacramento needs to make its case again this spring. “We’ll be in D.C. in April. We are going to make our voice heard.”

Trump’s plan could spell trouble as well for Sacramento’s long-planned light rail line between downtown and Sacramento International Airport.

Sacramento has done preliminary work on the extension, but has not yet requested federal funds. The project could cost $1 billion, according to initial estimates. The federal government has provided 50 percent of funding for light rail extensions here and elsewhere – if it decides a project will be enough of an economic benefit to the local community.

The Trump administration, in an infrastructure spending program also announced Monday, indicated it wants to provide only 20 percent of the funding for major transportation projects. Taken together, the Trump budget and infrastructure plan suggest a future airport rail line would have to be funded mainly by local residents.

“I think this is the future of federal participation,” Sacramento Area Council of Governments head James Corless said on Monday. “The writing is on the wall for us as a region to get more creative with our local funding sources.”

In 2016, a half-cent sales tax increase for Sacramento County transportation fell shy of the two-thirds support necessary to pass.

These downtown scenes show streetcar operations of the Sacramento City Lines in a circa 1946 educational documentary.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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