When will Sacramento get light rail to the airport? Not soon

Rep. Doris Matsui, in green jacket, leads a group on the inaugural run of light rail’s Green Line to Richards Boulevard in 2012.
Rep. Doris Matsui, in green jacket, leads a group on the inaugural run of light rail’s Green Line to Richards Boulevard in 2012. Sacramento Bee file

It’s hard to pin down when Sacramento leaders first talked about running light-rail trains from downtown to Sacramento International Airport. The concept was definitely on the books in the early 1990s. Some at Sacramento Regional Transit say they had it on their hope-to-do list as far back as the early 1980s.

The 13-mile line has proven to be one of the most difficult public projects to pull off in recent Sacramento history, even though many residents say it’s the rail link they want most.

This month, Regional Transit is at work again on what it calls the Green Line. The agency has launched a detailed environmental review, a necessary step toward finalizing where the line will run, what it will cost, and what needs to be done to get it built.

RT, which has operated light rail for three decades, recently extended its south line to Cosumnes River College, a difficult effort as well that took years to pull off. Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley says the agency now has “a window of opportunity” to deliver the long-promised airport line.

The project will be RT’s costliest ever, estimated at nearly $1 billion, and that alone makes it daunting.

Coming out of the recession, RT’s financial situation is weak. The agency has been forced to dip into its reserves to balance its budget the last two years, and may have to do that again next year. It has hired a consultant to help fix its finances, but even if that goes well, the agency will not have the money to build the new line on its own.

It will have to win a large federal grant as well as some state funds. But even those probably won’t be enough, RT says. The transit agency and other transportation officials are considering asking Sacramento County voters next year to approve a sales tax increase for road and transit projects, including money for the Green Line.

The cost and complexity of the project likely will require RT to break the expansion into three smaller construction segments spread over years. The first phase involves building a disputed bridge over the American River and running a line up Truxel Road, also a subject of debate.

Truxel is an incredibly impacted artery. Adding a train ... feels invasive.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby

The initial segment’s end point would be at the Natomas Marketplace shopping center, just north of Interstate 80. The transit agency likely would build an elevated rail line and station over the highly congested intersection of Truxel and Gateway Park Boulevard.

RT chief Wiley said the spot represents a good interim terminus for the rail line because RT owns land for a parking lot where commuters could leave their cars and get on light rail into downtown, avoiding traffic on the Interstate 5 bridge.

Given the laborious nature of environmental reviews and federal funding requests, RT predicts it won’t start building the first phase for another four or five years. Trains wouldn’t be up and running until 2022.

The agency likely would then build a second extension to Natomas Town Center, followed by the third and final leap to the airport, where land has been set aside for a station outside the Terminal B baggage area.

Wiley said it appears at the moment that airport trains won’t be running until about 2030, 15 years from now.

“These projects take a long time, even when you believe you are ready to go,” he told Natomas residents at a community meeting last week.

Regional planners and business leaders, including Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, have been pushing for light rail to the airport, saying it would make it easier for business travelers to get to downtown and the Capitol. It also would provide a second major way besides driving on I-5 for Sacramento residents to get to and from the airport.

“Public transit linkage builds connectivity for residents and visitors alike, and the light-rail extension will allow the city and airport to reach their full potential,” Matsui said last week.

Mike McKeever, head of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the region’s transportation planning agency, said getting just a small sliver of drivers off I-5 will have a notable effect on easing what is expected to be increased freeway congestion as the Natomas area grows in the coming decades.

Long before it gets to the airport, the Green Line will serve an important function, RT officials say. The project has been designed with numerous stops in North Natomas and South Natomas. An RT ridership analysis conducted several years ago shows that Natomas residents and commuters – not airport fliers – will be the main riders.

These projects take a long time, even when you believe you are ready to go.

RT General Manager Mike Wiley

Although those community stops will ultimately slow down the ride to the airport, they will connect major gathering points, including the American River College Natomas Center, North Natomas Regional Park, two high schools, the South Natomas Library and community center, and the future redevelopment site where Sleep Train Arena now stands.

City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby and others are pushing the Sacramento Kings to turn the Sleep Train site into a major job center after the basketball team moves downtown next year. That could mean bringing the light-rail line right through the site and putting a station there, making that redevelopment site one of the few true transit-oriented projects in the region.

Several aspects of the planned route are controversial, notably the proposed bridge over the American River between downtown and South Natomas.

RT initially planned to limit use of that bridge to transit, bicyclists and pedestrians. But Sacramento city officials would like to include one lane in each direction for cars. They say that will allow Natomas drivers to get to downtown without having to use the freeway.

Betsy Weiland of the Save the American River Association said she and other environmentalists oppose allowing cars on the bridge because it defeats the purpose of light rail, which is to reduce car use and the resulting greenhouse gas pollution.

“When you build roads, you create traffic,” Weiland said.

Former Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo, a South Natomas resident who lives near Truxel Road, supports the proposed rail line. But she said that if cars are allowed on the bridge, the city must take steps to guard against accidentally turning Truxel Road into a cut-through street for commuters from elsewhere. “We don’t want to be an alternative to I-5 (for cars) through our residential community.”

Caltrans officials say they support allowing cars on the proposed light-rail bridge to ease I-5’s burden as development picks up in Natomas.

“We are extremely supportive about making that a multimodal bridge with some limited access for cars,” said Marlon Flournoy, Caltrans’ local planning chief and a North Natomas resident. “As much as we can remove local traffic from the freeway, and have them use the local (road) system, that would be preferable.”

Some South Natomas residents oppose RT’s plan to run the rail line along Truxel Road, arguing it will bring noise, crime, reduced property values and added traffic congestion to the area. Engineers hired by RT say they will have to take small slices of some properties along Truxel to make room for two sets of rail tracks, two car lanes in each direction, bike lanes and sidewalks.

Councilwoman Ashby is among those who say they prefer to see the rail line run along I-5. “Truxel is an incredibly impacted artery,” she said. “Adding a train ... feels invasive.”

But RT officials say Truxel is the right choice because it brings light rail to the heart of a community whose residents have poor access to downtown. “We have concentrations of apartment houses here,” said City Councilman Jeff Harris. “Why put (light rail) next to the freeway and make people drive to the train?”

Harris, who sits on the RT board, said the transit agency must improve its performance to win over Natomas residents whose neighborhoods are underserved by transit and who have a negative view of RT. “We have work to do,” he said.

Money remains the biggest issue. Once the environmental review is finished, Sacramento RT officials plan to apply for a federal grant to pay for half the cost of the project. The agency has been successful with similar requests on other light-rail extensions, but competition is stiff. Federal officials will require RT to show it has nailed down the other half of the funding before it commits.

Some of that matching money is expected to come from state grants. But that won’t cover the whole tab, Wiley said. To fill the gap, RT officials are hoping to join forces with the Sacramento Transportation Authority on a ballot measure in November 2016, asking Sacramento County voters to approve a half-cent, 30-year sales tax increase.

STA officials are studying the possibility of such a measure. The annual revenues would be used to fund a variety of transportation-related improvements countywide, from pothole repair and street repaving, to new and wider roads, bike lanes, and pedestrian facilities, as well as rail construction.

The measure would also provide RT with some operating revenues as well for the 15-minute service the new line is expected to provide. “If we don’t get (those) operating funds, we will not get federal and state funds,” Wiley said.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak