After defeat, streetcar advocates vow to continue push

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 streetcar advocates say they won’t give up their quest to build a downtown trolley system, despite voters’ rejection this week of the financing plan.

The problem, they acknowledge, is that they have no Plan B for coming up with new local funds to build the 3.3-mile, $150 million line, which would have streetcars rumbling over the Tower Bridge and through downtown and midtown Sacramento to 19th Street.

Downtown Sacramento voters Tuesday soundly rejected a plan to set up a $30 million streetcar tax district to help finance the project. Fifty-two percent of those casting ballots opposed the plan, which needed a two-thirds margin to pass.

Notably, the vote occurred among a small number of registered voters – 3,700 – who live within three blocks of the proposed rail line in downtown and midtown. Under state law, those voters had the say over whether property owners in the same area should pay the trolley tax, even though the voters were a mix of property owners and renters. The election was held by mail over the past month. As of Tuesday night, 1,215 residents had submitted ballots, with 627 voting no.

Sacramento County voter registration officials said they will continue to accept mail this week, if it was postmarked by Tuesday. They plan to release a final vote tally Monday.

The thumbs-down from voters follows a February advisory vote held among owners of downtown property within three blocks of the line, the entities who would actually pay the assessment. That vote had no legal effect, but it signaled mixed feelings.

Sixty-eight percent of them approved the idea in a vote weighted by property size and on the amount each owner would be required to pay. The unweighted vote, however, showed that a slight majority of property owners opposed the funding plan. Property owners include developers who own high-rise buildings, the Sacramento Kings and other major interests – few of whom are actually residents of the area in question.

The vote follows state law but was slightly unusual, said local attorney Tim Taron, an expert on Mello-Roos taxing districts such as the one that would have been created to finance the streetcar line. These types of districts are typically set up in subdivisions before anyone moves in, he said. In those cases, if fewer than 12 registered voters live in a proposed district, the landowner – often a developer – has the vote.

“It’s unusual to do a Mello-Roos district in a mature community like this,” Taron said.

Key proponents, including the head of Sacramento Regional Transit, and city leaders in Sacramento and West Sacramento, said they are consulting this week about how they may find other funds.

“The project is clearly a good, strong project that will have tremendous benefit for years and years,” RT General Manager Mike Wiley said Wednesday. “It’s unfortunate a small number of people didn’t see the value.

“Our responsibility now is to take a hard look at how to come up with $30 million to complete funding of the project.”

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen called the streetcar project a tool for boosting the downtown economy. “We’re really committed to keep the project on track.”

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon called the vote a setback for the effort to offer new lifestyle and mobility options for downtown workers and residents who choose not to have cars, especially as both sides of the river add substantial housing, business and entertainment venues in the next few years.

“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 a 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, and that city leaders should take that as an indication that residents don’t want or need trolleys.

Opponents said the project would not create the level of economic development that proponents claim and could lead to annual operating deficits, requiring more public money to keep it going over time.

“If this thing ever gets built, it is going to be a white elephant,” Neufeld said. “They try to force the market on these fantasy projects.”

Proponents said it is too early to say where they will find the funds to plug the $30 million hole in the project’s construction financing.

Potential options include state cap-and-trade funds, as well as other state and federal transportation funds. County transportation officials have been discussing asking county voters to approve a temporary sales tax increase to fund road expansions, road maintenance and transit projects. If that vote moves forward, streetcar financing potentially could be added to the mix, Wiley said.

But that vote would be more than a year away – at the earliest – and streetcar officials say they feel they need to act quickly to come up with funds, or risk losing federal government support for the project.

The federal government earlier this year indicated it is willing to pay $75 million, or half of the project’s $150 million cost, but that commitment is not firm and could disappear if local officials aren’t able to nail down $75 million in local funds.

Some of the local money is set. The city of West Sacramento has agreed to put in $25 million. The city of Sacramento has set aside $7 million. Sacramento County is expected to add $3 million, and the state is being asked to chip in $10 million.

“We have to identify a solution or set of solutions quickly,” Cabaldon said.

The 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 new Kings arena, the convention center, Memorial Auditorium, hotels and the state Capitol.

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