Transportation

Sacramento’s light-rail extension opens Monday with big questions

Video: An inside look at Sacramento's new light rail extension

Take a preview tour of Regional Transit's new Blue Line to Cosumnes River College. Video by Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee.
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Take a preview tour of Regional Transit's new Blue Line to Cosumnes River College. Video by Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee.

Sacramento Regional Transit’s long-awaited $270 million Blue Line light-rail extension to Cosumnes River College starts regular service Monday, carrying with it some big questions.

▪ Will skeptical Elk Grove and south Sacramento County commuters give the new line a try?

▪ Can RT show that it is on the rebound from hard times by offering clean and orderly service?

▪ What’s a faster commute into downtown, Highway 99 or a rail ride through south Sacramento?

Regional Transit officials say they are pleased with the 4-mile extension – which boasts three new stations and some eclectic art – and that commuters will appreciate the quality of the ride. The first downtown-bound trains take off from the college Monday at 5 a.m.

“We’re very happy about it; we worked hard to get to this point,” RT General Manager Mike Wiley said.

Transit advocates say the line will be a key part of the region’s transportation system, allowing south county drivers a reliable alternative to Highway 99, the most congested freeway in the region, and Interstate 5, which is projected to handle more traffic when the massive Delta Shores community takes shape near Freeport in the next few years.

The extension is expected to be popular with students, connecting Sacramento City and Cosumnes River colleges with each other, downtown and points north and east.

The extension, however, has been controversial. Hundreds of Elk Grove e-tran bus commuters say they have no intention of switching from buses to rail. Some say the trains will be inconvenient. Others say they do not believe RT can provide clean and safe service.

Several pointed out it will take extra time to take a bus or car to the college to catch the train, likely making a train commute downtown longer than a typical drive. Conversely, freeway drive times can be unpredictable, with crashes or other problems turning half-hour commutes into hourlong slogs.

The transit agency has been under a harsh spotlight for months. A group of downtown Sacramento business leaders criticized the agency earlier this year, saying RT must improve in order to be up to the task next year of transporting thousands of new riders to events when a downtown arena opens. That business group is now working with RT officials on ways to improve the system.

Elk Grove officials had initially planned to eliminate most of their downtown commuter buses and instead ferry riders to the new stations. After bus riders protested, those officials decided to watch what happens before making any e-tran bus changes. Elk Grove bus chief Jean Foletta said some of the initial resistance is likely to disappear in time.

“Once it gets here and people start talking about light rail, I think we will see people shift from e-tran to light rail,” she said. “How many, I don’t know.”

Regional Transit board chair Jay Schenirer said his agency realizes it is on notice: It must “earn” its new south county ridership. The agency is adjusting security, improving its station cameras and working on cleanliness. The agency still has a ways to go, he said, but he believes enough progress has been made to convince skeptics.

“This is a huge deal for RT and the public,” Schenirer said. “It’s an opportunity to demonstrate to a sector of the public that did not have the service before that the system can run clean, secure and efficient.”

The transit agency has been under a harsh spotlight for months. A group of downtown Sacramento business leaders criticized the agency earlier this year, saying RT must improve in order to be up to the task next year of transporting thousands of new riders to events when a downtown arena opens. That business group is now working with RT officials on ways to improve the system. One of those leaders, Republic FC soccer team owner Warren Smith, attended a recent Elk Grove City Council meeting to talk about those joint improvement efforts.

Last week, staff from Republic FC and the Sacramento Kings jointly launched a social media campaign, FixMyRide916, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, to improve communication between current and potential riders and Regional Transit.

Regional Transit’s security chief Norm Leong, a Sacramento police captain, and e-tran head Foletta are collaborating on a new program they call “Rider Watch,” similar to a neighborhood crime watch. The goal, Foletta said, is to help new Elk Grove-area riders get to know each other and form an onboard community. Transit police will meet with riders to offer safety tips and show them how to communicate their concerns and report issues to RT.

Leong last week said crime numbers are down on light-rail trains and at stations – 39 thefts and robberies so far this year. “There is still a lot of work to do, but we are headed in the right direction,” he said.

The relationship between RT and Elk Grove has been strained since the city broke away from RT a decade ago to form its own bus system. They have been doing some behind-the-scenes fence-mending in recent weeks, and the Elk Grove City Council and RT board next week are expected to ratify an agreement pledging to communicate openly and frequently for the benefit of commuters.

Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis said the city wants to work with RT on a further extension of light rail into Elk Grove, perhaps to the southern edge of the city, to make trains more convenient for residents. That extension is likely years away, though. RT officials are focused first on building a light-rail line to Sacramento International Airport.

RT officials said Blue Line service to Cosumnes River College will be robust from day one. Daily trains will run from 5 a.m. to midnight at 15-minute intervals until 7:30 p.m., and every 30 minutes after that. Estimated travel time on light rail from the college to the 16th Street station in downtown Sacramento is 28 minutes. From the college to Eighth and K streets, it is expected to be 36 minutes.

If demand over time is high enough, RT manager Wiley said his agency could add “limited stop” service during commute hours, cutting five minutes off the travel time to downtown.

The Blue Line, which also stops at Sacramento City College, is expected to be popular with students. The new line will open on the first weekday of classes for the fall semester at Cosumnes River College, a few weeks earlier than expected.

Half of the extension project’s $270 million cost comes from a federal grant; the rest is a combination of local and state transportation funds. RT officials say it appears the project may come in as much as $10 million under budget.

Take a preview tour of Regional Transit's new Blue Line to Cosumnes River College. Video by Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

RT Blue Line extension

Sunday: RT will offer free rides on the new line and host a pre-opening community celebration, including food and music, at Cosumnes River College from noon to 5 p.m.

Monday: At 9 a.m., local officials will break a champagne bottle at the Meadowview station and invited guests will ride the train south to the college. Rep. Doris Matsui and others will speak.

E-tran change: The e-tran No. 56 bus will offer every-15-minute service to Cosumnes River College starting Sept. 13.

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