Sacramento streetcar funding plan appears headed to ballot defeat

Portland's streetcar runs through downtown on a loop of track that shares the street with cars and people.
Portland's streetcar runs through downtown on a loop of track that shares the street with cars and people. KRT

Sacramento’s decade-long effort to launch a new generation of trolley cars on downtown streets appears to have been stopped in its tracks Tuesday night.

The streetcar financing proposal was down 52 percent to 48 percent Tuesday night with nearly a third of eligible votes in, far less than the 67 percent margin the measure would need to pass.

Tuesday was deadline day for registered voters living in midtown and downtown Sacramento to mail in their votes on a proposed taxing district that would provide a portion of the $150 million start-up cost for a streetcar project linking Sacramento and West Sacramento over the Tower Bridge.

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, the streetcar project’s leading advocate, acknowledged likely defeat at the polls, but said the two cities will not give up on the project.

“We’re going to need a Plan B,” Hansen said. “We’ll look for other sources of funds. We’re really committed to keep the project on track.”

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said the two cities need to push forward with the streetcar plan in order for riverfront downtown areas to grow, adding housing, business and entertainment venues, without becoming overrun by cars.

“We don’t have a choice; we have to figure it out,” Cabaldon said. “We’ll look at other sources of transportation funding.”

Dennis Neufeld, an opponent of the plan and member of the group Eye on Sacramento, said the project was not a good enough investment to persuade voters to put private money behind it. “The two-thirds threshold is a tough mountain to climb.” He said he too believes the cities will not stop their efforts to build a trolley line.

“They are going to find that money by hook or crook,” he said, but predicted, “if this thing ever gets built, it is going to be a white elephant. They try to force the market on these fantasy projects.”

The Measure B vote was conducted via mail balloting over the last month among registered voters who live within three blocks of the proposed streetcar rail line.

As of Tuesday night, 627 of 1,215 of those voters opposed the measure. County voter registration officials said they will continue to accept mail, if postmarked by Tuesday, through Friday. They plan to release a final vote tally Monday.

A two-thirds majority yes vote would have allowed the city of Sacramento to set up a financing district that would raise $30 million of the expected $150 million construction cost of the 3.3-mile line.

That $30 million would be paid by property owners near the rail line. Much of the rest of the money needed for the project, $75 million, would come from federal government transit grants. That federal funding has not yet been secured. Voters in West Sacramento have already agreed to contribute $25 million. The city of Sacramento would contribute $7 million, the county $3 million, and the state of California was expected to contribute $10 million.

Hansen and other advocates have pitched the streetcar as an economic development tool for downtown Sacramento and West Sacramento.

A planned rail line would run from City Hall in West Sacramento, past Raley Field and the burgeoning Bridge District, over the Tower Bridge and past key downtown Sacramento spots, including Old Sacramento, the downtown train depot, the site of the Kings arena, the convention center, Memorial Auditorium, hotels and the state Capitol.

The streetcar plan has been in the works for more than a decade. Streetcars have seen a resurgence in recent years in other cities, most notably Portland. Business leaders said they view the streetcar as an attractive amenity in downtown, allowing more people to get around easily during the day and evening without using cars for short trips, and creating a level of activity that would induce more business investment and development.

“Streetcars create a vibrant local economy, which means more small businesses and more jobs in downtown and midtown,” proponents argued in their ballot statement. “The streetcar project will help create 12,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in economic development over 20 years.”

Proponents argued the streetcar line would also help make downtown an easier place to get around for the expected 10,000 new residents living in the area in the coming decade or two.

“Streetcars will provide an inexpensive, safe and fun way to get around,” they wrote. “Measure B will allow seniors, students, visitors, workers, and central city residents to go car-free.”

Opponents said the project is unnecessary, costly, may not be ridden by many people, and would not create the level of economic development that proponents claim. Instead, it may prompt downtown landlords to boost rents on tenants. They also argued that the final cost would be more than the published $150 million, and that the trolleys would operate with annual deficits, requiring the city to find more money down the line to keep them going.

Those opponents said the city should focus instead of expanding and improving the bigger light-rail system.

The campaign was low-key and involved only a small number of eligible voters. Proponents, including business representatives, reported raising $57,000 to promote the streetcar concept. Opponents did not file campaign finance statements.

Editor’s note: This story was changed June 2 to correct the percentage of the vote returns.

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