Sacramento transit leaders agree light-rail service needs improvement

Business critics have said Regional Transit needs to ensure cleaner trains and stations, and the light-rail transit agency agrees change is needed.
Business critics have said Regional Transit needs to ensure cleaner trains and stations, and the light-rail transit agency agrees change is needed. Sacramento Bee file

In what’s being described as an unprecedented move, Sacramento Regional Transit officials agreed this week to collaborate with a group of major downtown business owners on a speeded-up effort to improve the transit system before a sports and entertainment arena opens downtown.

The business group, which includes Kings basketball partner Mark Friedman and downtown developer David Taylor, publicly challenged the transit agency last week to improve the safety, cleanliness, customer service and branding of light rail or risk turning off potential new riders in late 2016 when the arena opens.

“Crumbling infrastructure is rampant throughout the system,” Friedman said.

Early estimates suggest that several thousand arena event-goers are likely to consider taking light-rail trains, many of whom had never used the transit system before. The business group’s members were blunt in their assessment that RT is not yet providing service safe and convenient enough to retain those potential new riders.

RT board Chairman Phil Serna, who convened the business group for input a few months ago, said the agency likely will set up a committee later this month to work with the business leaders on ways the agency can improve service.

It remains uncertain how the two groups will work together, and whether the partnership will bring new money to the cash-strapped transit system. RT has struggled financially since the recession, cutting back on service and maintenance, and only recently began trying to rebuild.

The business group made a series of presentations and recommendations to the RT board at its Monday night meeting, starting with a slide show by Taylor showing several downtown stations with overflowing garbage cans, dirty sidewalks, graffiti and other blighted conditions. Taylor suggested the agency try to partner more with adjacent property owners to keep stations clean.

RT officials have begun improving their policing efforts lately, but the business group said the agency needs to take bigger steps faster, including more fare checking and a zero-tolerance policy for poor behavior.

Taylor, the developer of several downtown high-rises, including the U.S. Bank Tower across L Street from the arena site, offered a mea culpa of his own, saying he and other downtown business people should have been working more closely with Regional Transit years ago to improve service.

“We jointly haven’t focused enough of our attention with you over the years; we haven’t been engaged,” Taylor said. “This is our opportunity to do so.”

Wendy Hoyt, a longtime Sacramento transportation consultant who helped guide the business group’s study of RT, called the potential collaboration between RT and business leaders unprecedented, a potential turning point for the county’s transit agency, which runs light-rail lines into downtown from Folsom, south Sacramento and north Sacramento.

“In the 30 years I’ve either worked for or with Regional Transit, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hoyt said.

Advocates for transit riders all said this week the focus of any RT improvements should be on the overall system for all riders, not just for the expected crowds at arena events.

“RT improvements should be focused on the whole system, not focused on an arena,” said Barbara Stanton, head of the RiderShip for the Masses.

Several RT board members agreed. “This is a chance to use the arena as part of a strategy to grow our business,” said RT board member Steve Hansen, a Sacramento city councilman.

“A good place to start is to clean up the mess ... and do it quickly,” RT board member and county Supervisor Don Nottoli said, referring to Taylor’s slide show.

RT General Manager Mike Wiley said his staff will begin work on an action plan for system changes to the board. The board is expected to vote Jan. 26 on establishing an as-yet unnamed “arena/system improvement” committee that will consult with the business group, as well as conduct an early discussion of what Serna referred to as a “road map” forward.

Members of the business group along with Friedman and Taylor are Steve Goodwin, Michael Heller, Larry Kelley, Warren Smith, Dain Domich, Tina Thomas, Ali Youssefi, Roger Kittredge, Michael Ault and Dion Dwyer.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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