Back-Seat Driver

If Sacramento is going to get decent transit to the airport anytime soon, this may be how

When James Corless moved here last year to be the region’s main transportation planner, his first thought, he says, when he landed at Sacramento International Airport: Where’s the transit?

Big cities have robust transit options from their airports into town. Sacramento has a single once-an-hour Yolo County bus that loops through downtown. That and a revolving legion of chatty Uber drivers.

That may change.

Congresswoman Doris Matsui plans to convene meetings of stakeholders this year to talk about better options. Corless, who heads the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, already has been talking with Sacramento Regional Transit and air quality officials about tapping green or electric energy funds.

Corless said his vision is of a Sacramento that stakes its claim as a cutting-edge “electric city.”

At the airport, that means some form of “clean, electric mass transit that will zip you to downtown quickly, out of the traffic.” That could be buses that run in a high-occupancy freeway lane, or even on the freeway shoulder in places.

Sacramento Regional Transit currently does not run buses to the airport because of high costs. But SacRT exec Henry Li said last week the agency could get access to operating funds that make the project feasible.

Caltrans on Friday confirmed it intends to build a new lane in both directions on I-5. But those plans are in early stages and construction likely won’t start until 2025. That date may wash away, though, if voters repeal the state gas hike this November.

Meanwhile, more development around the airport as well as in Natomas, Woodland and up Highway 99 is making I-5 more congested.

That prompts the question: What happened to the plan to build a light rail line between downtown and the airport?

That light rail project is not dead. The estimated cost is a big one, $1 billion, but SacRT exec Li believes it is doable if federal, state and local funding falls into line. The uncertainty level is high, though. The local funding would likely come from a Sacramento County sales tax measure that transportation officials hope to put on the 2020 ballot. The local money is used to compete for the state and federal grant funding. But a similar local transportation tax measure failed in 2016.

Even if Sacramento gets its tax funds and wins state and federal money, Li said the best-case scenario for building light rail to the airport won’t have trains up and running until 2030.

That light rail line, as currently planned, would not be a fast route to the airport. It would serve as a commuter line on city streets with numerous stops for North and South Natomas residents to use to get work downtown.

For those reasons, Corless says, the region needs to explore a quick answer.

“We still want light rail to the airport, eventually,” he said. “But we need frequent, modern, exciting transit (now), showcasing the region.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee