Back-Seat Driver

New vote on downtown Sacramento streetcars in the works

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.

Turned down by voters earlier this year, Sacramento downtown streetcar advocates are bouncing back with a new financing plan for a modern-day equivalent of the city’s historical trolleys.

The group, which includes downtown and city leaders, hopes to ask several hundred downtown Sacramento property owners next spring to assess themselves $30 million to put into the $150 million estimated cost for the project, City Councilman Steve Hansen said.

Many of those property owners voted in February in support of the streetcar project. That vote, however, was merely advisory.

A different group, about 1,200 residents who lived within three blocks of the proposed streetcar line in Sacramento, participated in an official vote a few months later and rejected the financing plan. Those residents were not being asked to contribute to the streetcar costs, but had the legal right under state law to make the call on whether to set up the funding mechanism envisioned at the time, a community facilities district.

By creating a different type of legal structure this time, called a benefit assessment district, streetcar advocates say they can go directly to the property owners for approval. “We have been encouraged by people not to give up,” Hansen said. “This is a huge opportunity to transform our central city ... part of a comprehensive strategy to ensure we have the best ways to get people moving around, including walking, light rail, buses, bikes and cars.

“The value is definitely there. It’s air quality and congestion relief benefits, and the opportunity to support infill development.”

The proposed streetcar line would be 3.3 miles long, running on rails in traffic lanes with cars, linking West Sacramento and Sacramento. It would stop at Raley Field and the Bridge District in West Sacramento and near Old Sacramento, the downtown depot, the Kings arena, the state Capitol, major hotels and the convention center in Sacramento.

The streetcar would link at certain stops with light-rail trains, allowing people to travel into the central core via the bigger trains, then move around in it on streetcars, which ride on rails but are only slightly larger than buses.

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, a streetcar advocate, said she expects the opening of a downtown sports and entertainment arena and other development, including thousands of new housing units, to increase support for a streetcar system.

“People are going to be dying to get that thing done,” Matsui said. “Not just for the arena, it’s for everything else downtown – a real downtown where we have people coming and going.”

Opponents, notably members of the Eye on Sacramento government watchdog group, have argued the project is unnecessary, costly, may not be ridden by many people, and would not create the level of economic development that proponents claim. They warn of the potential for operating deficits.

The new vote under consideration will require more groundwork, proponents said. To legally set up a property assessment district, the advocates must provide a detailed engineer’s report that shows the project’s economic benefit for each property owner along the corridor.

Officials with the city of Sacramento and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments are doing that analysis now and plan to have discussions with local property owners before deciding whether to schedule a spring vote. They point out that earlier studies concluded the streetcar line would increase adjacent property values and allow property owners to charge higher rents.

They say they are proceeding cautiously. “Once bitten, twice shy,” Hansen said. “With this second run at it, we want to make sure every ‘t’ is crossed, every ‘i’ dotted, and that we incorporate feedback.”

The federal government last year indicated it was likely to provide Sacramento with a $75 million grant, accounting for half the cost of the streetcar line. Matsui said on Wednesday she believes the Federal Transit Administration remains supportive as long as Sacramento shows it has local funds to complement federal funding.

“If we get everything in place, we’ll be fine,” Matsui said. “My whole deal is, let’s move quickly here because I don’t want to lose our place in line. There are many other cities that really want the streetcar. We have the opportunity and the need here.”

The remaining funds for the streetcar are expected to come from the city of West Sacramento, Sacramento County, the city of Sacramento and the state. If Sacramento lines up the funding, construction would start in 2017 or 2018, Hansen said.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

Related stories from Sacramento Bee