State puts Sacramento’s streetcar dreams back on track with $30 million grant

Sacramento’s downtown streetcar project got a life-saving boost Tuesday with the announcement of a $30 million grant from state cap-and-trade funds.

The California State Transportation Agency has listed the planned streetcar line in Sacramento and West Sacramento among a handful of projects to win funding this year from the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program, which uses money from the state’s auctions of pollution credits to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand mass transportation ridership.

In total, 41 local governments submitted more than $3 billion in grant requests. The state allocated $390 million to 14 entities.

“We think it is a worthy project,” CalSTA Secretary Brian Kelly said of the planned streetcar connecting Sacramento and West Sacramento. “It has strong support from local and federal leaders. It offers a way for people to get around downtown that is clean, and doesn’t involve (vehicle) emissions. It hits a lot of things that are important to us from a (greenhouse gas) standpoint.”

The plan would involve running modern-looking electric streetcars on a 3.3-mile rail line in traffic lanes at downtown vehicle speeds, but with frequent curb stops to pick up and drop off passengers. Stops would include the Capitol, the Golden 1 Center, Memorial Auditorium, the train depot and Old Sacramento. Trolleys would connect to West Sacramento over the Tower Bridge with stops at Raley Field, City Hall and the waterfront.

The state grant takes the project off the hold shelf, where it has been for the last year, by providing enough money to pay for the basic “starter line.”

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West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon, among those who proposed the streetcar project a decade ago, called the funding “a tremendous victory for a new vision of the downtown, the waterfront and the urban core. So many times, we have been written off.”

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen said the streetcar will boost the city’s efforts to build a more robust downtown, notably with thousands of housing units.

Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui lauded the announcement as another step forward. “The Downtown Riverfront Streetcar project will work with our existing public transit systems by linking residents to their final destinations, while helping our environment.”

The basic or bare bones streetcar construction is expected to be in the $150 million range. The Obama administration has indicated the federal government would contribute $75 million in federal transit funds. Streetcar advocates say they would like to try, over the long term, to qualify for as much as $100 million in federal funds to add elements to the project, including a spur line.

West Sacramento residents voted several years ago to chip in $25 million. The city of Sacramento is putting in $7 million and the county of Sacramento is expected to add $3 million. Another $10 million is expected from state rail funds.

Sacramento city officials are talking with Sacramento Regional Transit about ways to leverage another $18 million in transit funds for additional streetcar-related work. Advocates are looking for money to move light rail off of K Street and onto H Street.

RT officials declined comment on any potential additional funds Tuesday, saying in an email, “RT serves as a technical advisor and technical arm to assist on the grant application at this time.”

The city of Sacramento also must come up with a source of money for ongoing operations. Farebox revenue and advertising income could pay for some of these costs, but not all. To fill in the rest, estimated at several million dollars a year, Sacramento officials said they plan to create a benefit assessment district, or tax district, made up of several hundred large property owners near the line in downtown Sacramento.

That will require a vote, likely next spring, of affected property owners. A previous vote of both large and small property owners failed last year, stalling the project.

Critics, including the Eye on Sacramento watchdog group, say the streetcar concept is a waste of money and that operating expenses could become a financial sinkhole.

The streetcar is expected to be administered by a joint powers agency that could include downtown business leaders on its board. RT likely would sign on as operator.

The state cap-and-trade transit grant program is in its second year of annual disbursements. Last year, $224 million in grants were divided among 14 projects. Sacramento RT won $6.4 million in that offering to refurbish light-rail cars.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak