Sacramento’s plan to bring streetcars back to downtown appears to be back on track after stalling out last year.
The project got a kickstart Tuesday morning when federal officials stated renewed willingness to contribute $75 million to build the proposed 3.3-mile rail line linking key sites in West Sacramento and Sacramento. The funding notation is in the Obama administration’s proposed budget.
The trolleys would stop at Raley Field and the Bridge District in West Sacramento and near Old Sacramento, the downtown depot, the Kings arena, the state Capitol, major hotels and the convention center in Sacramento.
The federal funding is contingent, however, on Sacramento coming up with roughly an equal amount of local funding to pay for what is estimated to be a $150 million project.
Proponents say they also want to move light-rail trains off K Street Mall and onto H Street, which could cost an additional $20 million. Both light rail and the smaller trolleys could run on tracks on K Street, but the combination of the two would be logistically difficult and clutter the street.
Backers say streetcars would reduce cars and congestion as downtown grows, and could help spur economic development and needed housing by making the downtown a more people- and pedestrian-oriented place.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, thanked federal officials for including Sacramento on its project list, saying the streetcar plan is “a vital part of my vision for a more connected Sacramento.”
“Today’s announcement ... means we are one step closer to the realization of the (streetcar project), which will not only spark economic development by efficiently linking Sacramento businesses, residents, and major landmarks, but will also provide Sacramentans with an environmentally friendly public transportation option as our region continues to grow,” Matsui said in an email to The Bee.
Proponents say the next step likely will be to ask property owners along and near the planned line this spring to vote to tax themselves to pay for as much as $30 million of the construction costs. Details and timing of that vote are still being worked out.
The project won federal funding support last year, as well, but fell off the federal funding list when local officials were unable to nail down the local matching funds. Property owners along the rail line voted their willingness last year to financially support the project, but their vote was legally only advisory. In a later, official vote, residents who lived within three blocks of the proposed line in Sacramento rejected the financing plan.
Streetcar proponents said this year, they likely will try a different type of vote, called a benefit assessment district. By creating a different legal structure, streetcar advocates say they can go directly to the property owners for official approval. To do so, the advocates must provide a detailed engineer’s report that identifies the project’s expected economic benefit for each property owner along the corridor.
Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen cheered Tuesday’s announcement. “Inclusion in the fed budget as an official project is a huge step,” he said. “Now, it is incumbent on us to finish our local financing plan. But this is a big day ... in bringing streetcars back to Sacramento.”
Hansen said he believes the project will transform the central city by promoting infill development, reducing congestion, improving air quality, and making the area more of a walking, biking and transit area, while still keeping room for cars.
Members of watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, however, challenge some of the proponents’ conclusions about the value of the project. They did an assessment last year that indicated the project won’t have the economic benefits proponents claim and may not be ridden by many people. The group said the project could put the city’s general fund at risk down the line if construction costs escalate or if operating costs prove to be bigger than expected.
The streetcar would link at certain stops with light-rail trains, allowing people to travel into the central core from outlying areas via the bigger trains, then use the streetcars, which are slightly larger than buses, to get around downtown and around West Sacramento’s riverside redevelopment areas.
The city of West Sacramento is expected to kick in $25 million from a voter-approved tax measure. The city of Sacramento has agreed to add $7 million, and Sacramento County is expected to contribute $3 million. Proponents say they hope to win $10 million from the state in cap-and-trade funds.
If Sacramento lines up the funding, construction would start in 2017 or 2018.