Transportation

Light-rail Green Line may shut in Sacramento to save money

New Sacramento light rail line faces closure

Sacramento Regional Transit is considering temporarily shuttering its lightly used Green Line to save money. The line was opened four years ago.
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Sacramento Regional Transit is considering temporarily shuttering its lightly used Green Line to save money. The line was opened four years ago.

Sacramento Regional Transit opened its $44 million Green Line four years ago with celebratory fireworks and speeches hailing it as the first step toward bringing light-rail service to North Natomas and the Sacramento International Airport.

Now, struggling with persistent money woes, RT officials have recommended closing the Green Line indefinitely as part of the agency’s third round of cuts in the last decade. The line currently averages only 440 boardings a day with limited service, and costs RT $330,000 annually to operate.

The list of potential service cuts, most of them to bus lines, would take place in January 2017. RT officials say they also are considering eliminating some administrative positions to help reduce operating costs by $2 million a year.

A final RT board decision on the cuts is expected in late June.

RT has been suffering since the recession in 2008. The agency depleted its reserve account to help balance its budget over the last two years. Faced with increased costs, reduced state and federal transportation funding, and stalled ridership numbers, the RT board voted earlier this year to increase fares by 10 percent on July 1, making the district’s passes and tickets among the most expensive in the state.

The Green Line is the shortest and least-used line in the RT system, running from the mostly-still-vacant Township 9 development at North Seventh Street and Richards Boulevard to 13th Street near Q Street in downtown. Trains currently run only on the half-hour, compared with 15-minute intervals on the Gold Line, which runs to Folsom, and the Blue Line, which runs to Cosumnes River College in the south.

RT board Chairman Jay Schenirer said possible suspension of service on the Green Line reflects the seriousness of the moment, and underscores RT’s determination to pare the agency until it is efficient.

“There are no sacred cows here,” said Schenirer, a member of the Sacramento City Council. “We are taking this seriously. We are not trying to work around the edges.”

Closure would mean the Township 9 station, near the California Highway Patrol and California Lottery headquarters, would go silent indefinitely.

 

Transit officials have said they always knew ridership on the line would be low until more homes and businesses were built around Richards Boulevard and in the downtown railyard, and until the agency could find a way to pay for extending the line to the airport. But RT pushed to open the line anyway in the hopes of spurring more building north of downtown. That development has progressed more slowly than expected.

Schenirer said agency staff likely will bring a proposal to the RT board next month to reorganize upper management, eliminating several administrative staff positions. He declined to say how many. Schenirer and RT General Manager Mike Wiley said they are trying to spread the financial burden around.

“It needs to be spread in all of the operations, and impact riders the least,” Schenirer said. “I hope we are getting both creative and entrepreneurial.”

Wiley said the agency would look to reopen the Green Line when it makes sense, but said this week he couldn’t make a guess when that would be. In its place, passengers could use two bus lines between downtown and the Richards area.

A staff analysis, to be presented to the transit board on Monday, also suggests an alternative to Green Line closure: The agency could merge the Green Line with the Gold Line, which would allow RT to continue running a train every half-hour during weekdays to the Township 9 station.

That move would save $235,000 a year, an analysis shows, but it would force the agency to reduce the frequency of Gold Line trains to and from the downtown train depot at Fourth and I streets, a major hub for riders transferring from Capitol Corridor and Amtrak trains to light rail.

Under that scenario, light-rail trains would link to the depot every half-hour instead of every 15 minutes, making it difficult for RT to sync its rail system with the commuter trains.

Eye On Sacramento, a citizens group that focuses on fiscal policies, recommended the closure, saying RT needs to take dramatic steps to reduce costs before it attempts to grow the agency.

Steve Goodwin, the developer of Township 9, a planned transit-oriented community on Richards Boulevard, argues shuttering the Green Line would be a mistake.

“That was an investment for the longer haul,” Goodwin said. “We never thought there was going to be a huge bump in ridership right off. That grows over time. To encourage ridership, you look at increasing, not decreasing, service.”

Goodwin’s development company paid for most of the costs to build the Township 9 stop, one of the showcase stations on the RT light-rail system. Goodwin had said his Township 9 development would have 6,000 or more residents by 2016. The site currently has just one low-income apartment complex.

Wiley said RT still plans to extend the Green Line at some point over the American River, through Natomas and on to the airport. But the agency must stabilize itself financially first before it can apply for the necessary federal grants to build the line, which could cost $1 billion.

Wiley said the Green Line, if shut down, would be up and running again if and when major-league soccer comes to Sacramento, which could be as early as 2018. Sacramento soccer officials plan to build a soccer stadium in the downtown railyard, which would bring thousands of new riders to the Green Line. Wiley said RT will continue its plans to build a station in the next two years on the Green Line a block from the proposed soccer stadium. RT has applied for state cap-and-trade funding to pay for the project.

The current proposed cuts, most involving bus routes, will reduce service 12 percent, according to a staff report. The reductions, coupled with fare increases, are expected to prompt ridership to shrink by 1 million boardings next year. The agency currently has about 26 million annual boardings.

RT staff members said their recommended cuts are based on multiple factors, including “ridership and productivity, geographic coverage (including access to Paratransit services), availability of transportation alternatives, access to major destinations or regional activity centers, recent changes in service, land use, or ridership, as well as public and board member input.”

The RT board voted last year on a set of principles for stabilizing the agency, including a policy limiting growth until the agency has met certain financial standards. Those include increasing farebox revenue, increasing ridership, replenishing the reserve account, cleaning trains and stations, and increasing security on trains and at stations.

The RT board is expected to review the proposed service cuts at its Monday meeting, and will vote on a final cut list in late June. RT staff are conducting a series of community meetings to get rider input.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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