Watch streetcars roll along Sacramento streets in the 1940s
For years, Sacramento streetcar advocates have been planning a grand return of electric trolleys to downtown, envisioning a modern rail fleet that would reduce cars downtown and boost development.
All the while, they've been waiting, fingers crossed, for the federal government to see fit to give them a critical boost, a $100 million grant to put the $208 million system on track.
They're still waiting. And wondering.
The Trump administration sent officials to Sacramento last week to do a "risk analysis" of the project. That suggests the administration, which hasn't shown much love for transit, is taking the Sacramento project seriously.
But there is no firm word yet on if and when the feds will give a thumbs up. Sacramento still has some groundwork to do, a Federal Transit Administration spokesman said in an email Friday to The Bee. Officials did not offer details.
Meanwhile, the effort to meet those federal requirements has run into a cash crunch. It needs a few million dollars, at least, to avoid stalling out this summer. In response, city officials in Sacramento and West Sacramento agreed this month to step in with a $2.6 million cash advance. That funding still has to be formally approved by city council votes. If it is, that will make $9 million the two cities have advanced so far for the project.
West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon, an advocate and member of the streetcar board, said it's important to show the feds that, despite delays, leaders here remain committed.
But Sacramento City Councilman Jeff Harris, also a proponent and member of the streetcar board, warned that the two cities can't keep coughing up money indefinitely. "It's getting a little tedious," he said. "There comes a cut-off line where you just can't invest any more on a promise."
The streetcar company would be run as a partnership of the two cities, with downtown business people advising, and likely Sacramento Regional Transit bus and rail district serving as the contracted operator.
Streetcars have made a comeback in U.S. cities in the last decade, but are controversial. Opponents, including the Eye on Sacramento group, say they are too expensive and unnecessary, and could end up requiring taxpayers to pay more for long-term operations.
Congresswoman Doris Matsui, Mayor Darrell Steinberg and some downtown business leaders say the streetcar is an economic tool that will boost housing and business by allowing people to get around without cars and avoid parking costs. Property owners who live near the proposed line in downtown Sacramento voted to tax themselves $50 million to help pay operations costs.
Streetcar officials say the money the two cities are offering will allow them to "squeak by" this year doing a little more prep work.
But they may also ask Sacramento Regional Transit for an additional $3.4 million this summer.
That may be a harder sell. The SacRT board agreed last year to add $25 million to the streetcar effort, but not until the Trump administration agrees to contribute.
Streetcar project manager Kirk Trost of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments said he'd hoped the administration might make a decision by the end of this year. But he said more recently he's getting signals it may not be until 2019.
"They are just not willing to tell us one way or another," he told his board.