Sacramento streetcar plan up for vote this month

Portland, at the leading edge of the streetcar resurgence in 2001, has seen its system flourish. Efforts in Seattle and Tampa have been less successful.
Portland, at the leading edge of the streetcar resurgence in 2001, has seen its system flourish. Efforts in Seattle and Tampa have been less successful. The Seattle Times

Are streetcars, an early 20th century fixture, about to reappear on Sacramento’s 21st century streets?

That question likely will be answered this month when downtown residents living near a proposed trolley line vote thumbs up or down on the city’s proposal to create a streetcar special tax district.

If voters say yes, the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento could start construction as early as next year on a 3.3-mile rail line that would cross the Tower Bridge and include stops at Raley Field, the downtown train depot, the new arena, the convention center, the state Capitol and the K Street Mall entertainment district.

If they vote no, it means the dream of some city officials, business people and rail buffs likely dies. City Councilman Steve Hansen, the project’s most public proponent, said last week there is no plan B for local funds to help finance the project.

The vote will be conducted by mail over the next month, with ballots due back to county election officials by June 2.

Supporters, including downtown developers David Taylor and Mark Friedman, say the streetcar would provide a major economic boost to the two cities, helping create a more lively downtown and vibrant West Sacramento riverfront.

Others, including City Hall watchdog Craig Powell, contend the economic boom talk is hype, and that streetcars could be more of a costly nuisance than a benefit.

Here are some of the key questions surrounding Sacramento’s proposed streetcar system.

Q: What exactly is a streetcar?

A: It’s an electric rail vehicle, about the size of a bus, that would run on tracks in traffic lanes along with cars. It would stop at sidewalk bump-outs to pick up passengers at roughly 15-minute intervals. The streetcar floor would be the same height as the sidewalk. Tickets, sold from machines on the street and on-board, may run $1, or a little more. The vehicles are enclosed and air conditioned.

Q: Why bring streetcars back?

A: Streetcars were run as private commuter lines in the past, and succumbed to suburban growth and the emergence of cars. The new streetcar system would link up with light rail trains coming from outside downtown, but the project is not being pitched as a purely commuting conveyance. Proponents say they see it more as a tool to spur economic development by making it easy for pedestrians to get to and from offices, stores, restaurants, bars and other businesses.

Q: Won’t the trolley further clog downtown streets?

A: That’s an argument made by some commuters who say major corridors such as L Street are congested enough without adding streetcars to the mix. Streetcars also would stop every few blocks, which could slow traffic. Proponents say an overabundance of cars has become the real nuisance downtown. The streetcar could help reduce the number of people using cars for short trips, clogging streets as they circle blocks looking for parking.

Q: Why now?

A: Federal transportation officials, pushing for more varied transit options in downtown areas, are offering competitive grants that pay for up to half the cost of a streetcar line. There are various reports of successes and failures from around the country. Portland, the city that helped create the streetcar resurgence in 2001, is adding a third line to its muscular downtown system. Seattle and Tampa have run into financial issues with their systems, and San Antonio recently backed away from rail plans.

Q: Who pays, and how much?

A: The proposal is billed as a $150 million project. The federal government has indicated it is willing to pay half the cost, $75 million, but only if Sacramento’s private sector picks up some of the rest. That is why the city set up a public vote to establish a local taxing district. The plan is to tax owners of properties within three blocks of the trolley line in downtown Sacramento to raise $30 million to help build the project.

State law requires the vote to be conducted among the 3,716 registered voters who live in the proposed streetcar district – many of them renters – even though the tax would be imposed on property owners, most of whom don’t live in the tax district. Those property owners voted informally a few months ago to agree to pay the tax.

Voters in the city of West Sacramento also have agreed to kick in $25 million. The city of Sacramento would add $7 million, likely from local transportation funds. The county would put in $3 million. The state is being asked to add $10 million.

Q: Is that the full cost to build?

A: Although the construction budget is capped at $150 million, the project would trigger other expenses. The plan involves moving light rail trains off the K Street Mall and onto H Street. That would cost about $16 million. Proponents say they are looking into a federal grant to help out, but they have not yet come up with funding for that move.

Also, there could be millions of dollars in costs to move underground utilities as part of the project. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has said it may have to spend between $28 million and $40 million. SMUD spokesman Chris Capra said the utility is “looking to avoid the cost being that high.” Capra said it’s too early to determine how the utility work would be funded.

Q: What about annual operating costs?

A: Streetcar proponents estimate the system would cost $3.5 million annually to run. That could go up over time, with maintenance and replacement costs. Fares and advertising are expected to cover about $1 million of the operating expenses. Proponents say they hope to tap local transportation funds as well. Some unspecified portion of the money could wind up coming from the city’s general fund.

Funding for operations would have to be identified before the two cities could enter into a formal grant agreement with the federal government.

Opponents worry that the operating estimates are low and that ridership would not be high enough to offset the costs. Powell and others have raised concerns that core city services and mass transit systems could suffer to help subsidize the streetcar system.

Q: Why not run a bus designed to look like a trolley?

A: Opponents say the cities may be digging themselves into a hole by tearing up streets and laying rail for a project that isn’t assured of success. They suggest saving money by running a shuttle bus that looks like a streetcar instead.

Streetcar advocates respond that buses don’t have the “coolness” factor of streetcars, and that they would not spur the economic development a streetcar can, nor contribute to increased property values. Proponents say a streetcar on a fixed rail line signals to potential developers and investors that the trolley will be there for years to come.

Q: Is a streetcar a good fit for Sacramento?

A: Some opponents say they don’t see an obvious need for a downtown streetcar, and without that clear need, the system is not likely to attract many riders. Advocates say their computer modeling shows that ridership should be solid, and that a streetcar would fill a niche in a growing downtown.

City officials are pushing for 10,000 new housing units downtown in the next 10 years. West Sacramento’s riverfront development, already underway, includes thousands more. Proponents say residents in the streetcar district, as well as tourists, business visitors and others, would find the trolleys an inexpensive and easy way to get around.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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