Sacramento streetcar proponents are back with pricier plan

Rendering of proposed Old Sacramento Station with two streetcars and Tower Bridge in the background, part of a proposed downtown/ riverfront streetcar project linking West Sacramento and Sacramento.
Rendering of proposed Old Sacramento Station with two streetcars and Tower Bridge in the background, part of a proposed downtown/ riverfront streetcar project linking West Sacramento and Sacramento. HDR Inc.

Undaunted by their failure to win voter approval last year, Sacramento streetcar advocates are back this spring with an even more ambitious plan, new funding strategies and a bigger price tag.

Sacramento and West Sacramento leaders have tacked $45 million in add-ons to their streetcar proposal, including an extra mile of tracks on West Sacramento’s waterfront, boosting the budget to $195 million. They’re upping the ante, they say, because more state and federal matching-grant funds are available this year, and it would be a mistake not to go after them.

“We didn’t want to leave money on the table,” said Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen. “If we want to ask for more, we have to show a bigger project. We’re trying to show them what we would do if they chose to invest more.”

Most of the project would be funded by those state and federal grants and by local government funds. But a chunk of the money would have to come from a property assessment on parcels near the proposed line in downtown and midtown Sacramento.

That proved to be the fatal flaw in last year’s financing effort. A group of downtown and midtown residents voted against that year’s plan to tax property owners about $30 million.

Sacramento city officials say they will try a local vote again this fall, but with key differences. Even though the overall project cost is larger this year, city planner Fedolia Harris said the city likely will ask property owners to kick in about $15 million, half of last year’s ask.

$195 millionPrice tag for streetcar system

Harris said it is still uncertain which parcels would be included, but they are expected to be business properties, not residential properties.

“The details are still being worked out,” he said.

City officials say they believe they will have a better shot this year of getting the necessary two-thirds approval by focusing the vote on larger property owners. Last year, a number of large landowners downtown, including the Sacramento Kings and hotel owners, indicated in a nonbinding vote that they would be willing to pay a property assessment to help finance the streetcar.

The proposed 3.3-mile starter line would weave through downtown and midtown Sacramento, stopping at the Capitol, the Golden 1 Center arena, Memorial Auditorium, the I Street train station and at major hotels, Old Sacramento and K Street nightspots. It would connect to West Sacramento over the Tower Bridge, where it would roll past Raley Field, City Hall and that city’s burgeoning waterfront districts.


The project is supported by Sacramento Regional Transit, Yolo Transit and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the region’s transportation planning agency.

This year’s plan, still in the formative stages, includes three elements that were not in last year’s funding pitch:

▪ West Sacramento has added a $20 million, one-mile spur line along its waterfront connecting that city’s Bridge District redevelopment area to the original starter line. That spur would be built after the basic line is done. Eventually it could connect to a planned Broadway Bridge over the Sacramento River, creating a looped streetcar system.

▪ The plan includes $5 million in upgrades to allow Sacramento RT light-rail trains to roll across the Tower Bridge as far as Raley Field. Sacramento transit head Mike Wiley said light-rail trains, which carry more passengers than streetcars, could be used for major events at the ballpark.

“It could be for games that are sold out, it could be for concerts, (or) for other major events where there is a demand,” Wiley said.

▪ The plan now includes moving light rail from K Street to H Street at a cost of about $20 million. Business and property owners on K Street requested the move to get block-long light rail trains off the pedestrian-oriented thoroughfare. RT officials say the smaller streetcars, each about the size of a bus, are a better fit for K. That move has been planned for several years, but was not formally part of the streetcar budget plan previously.

The streetcar proposal is controversial. The Eye on Sacramento citizen’s group, which focuses on government fiscal policies, called the streetcar “useless” in a press statement this week, and warned that the system could cost more to operate than expected, leading to “chronic operational red ink.”

Group member Erik J. Smitt warned against spending any planning money on the project now, saying it would end up wasted if backers don’t land all the money they seek. Several citizens at an RT board meeting this week called on the agency not to participate with the two cities on the streetcar plan right now, saying the financially troubled agency should focus its efforts on getting its existing bus and rail service in shape first.

If we want to ask for more, we have to show a bigger project. We’re trying to show them what we would do if they chose to invest more.

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen

The streetcar likely would be controlled by a joint powers authority created by the two cities. That authority would create a nonprofit company to run the streetcar, with a board likely made up of downtown property owners, plus city and transit representatives. The nonprofit would contract with RT to operate the system.

Streetcar advocates, including Councilman Hansen, a member of the RT board, say opponents lack a vision of the economic development that streetcars could generate in the two cities. The system, they say, would make downtown more vibrant and reduce traffic, parking problems and greenhouse gas emissions by allowing tens of thousands of new urban residents to get around without cars.

The streetcars, like those in Portland, Ore., would run on rails in street lanes at car speeds. The vehicles would have a modern look and would be powered by overhead wires, similar to light rail’s electrification system. Advocates say if the two cities and transit agencies can line up funding this year, the initial line would be up and running in 2020.

The funding picture is complicated. Sacramento is looking to the Federal Transit Administration to provide a grant of up to $100 million, which would cover more than half the $195 million cost. Federal officials will decide on that request this fall.

In addition, Sacramento recently submitted an application for $30 million in California cap-and-trade funds for greenhouse gas emissions projects. The state is expected to decide this summer.

West Sacramento would have to come up with a $35 million share under the new proposal. Previously, the city agreed to put $25 million into the pot from a voter-approved sales tax. It’s uncertain where the extra $10 million would come from. Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said his city could tap a developer-funded account or rearrange the city’s long-term capital improvements monies.

The city of Sacramento would kick in $7 million and Sacramento County is expected to contribute $3 million. Regional Transit would add about $5 million from state transit grants.

How the operating budget of the streetcars would be funded is not entirely clear. City and transit officials say about 25 percent of operations money is expected to come from passenger fares. Another chunk would come from advertising sold on streetcars. It is uncertain how much more money would be needed over time to operate the trolleys. Local officials say they have identified a number of possibilities, but have not finalized business operations or funding plans.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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