Back-Seat Driver

Sacramento-area commuters prefer diverse system, poll says

When it comes to complaining about our daily travels, Sacramentans appear to fall into one of three “gripe” groups, a new phone poll shows.

One-third of area residents, probably those with longer commutes, say traffic congestion is the biggest daily irritation. Twenty-two percent say, no, crumbling roads and potholes are what set their teeth on edge. Many of those people likely live in older areas where roads are more apt to be decaying. Then there is a group of 33 percent – a pollster calls them the “green living” group – that says the region’s main failing is the lack of usable public transit, and biking and pedestrian options.

The phone poll was conducted over the past two months by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the region’s transportation planning agency, to figure out a spending focus for the $35 billion or so that the region may have for transportation projects over the next 20 years.

That might sound like a lot of money, but it isn’t enough to do what everyone wants. A single traffic signal can cost $300,000. The planned new I Street bridge over the Sacramento River could cost $77 million. The price tag for the current rehab of Interstate 80 in North Sacramento is $135 million. And a light-rail extension to the airport, if ever built, may cost close to $1 billion.

Ultimately, most spending decisions on road improvements and transit projects are made by local cities and counties and bus agencies. But SACOG, whose board is made up of representatives from the area’s cities and its six counties – Yolo, Sutter, El Dorado, Placer, Yuba, and Sacramento – takes the lead in setting the tone by putting together a new metropolitan transportation plan every few years.

SACOG officials say the preliminary poll findings suggest Sacramentans want the money to be spread out pretty broadly. “The results support the notion that people in the region want a more diverse transportation system,” said Mike McKeever, SACOG’s executive director.

For the most part, that means continuing the course the region has been on for some time. A decade ago, Sacramento leaders agreed in principle that the cities and counties should build more communities that mix home, work and recreation together or near each other, and that the region should increase the amount of transportation funds for “alternative” modes, such as public transit, better sidewalks and bike facilities. The goal, advocates say, has been to make it easier for people to get around without driving long distances on freeways each day.

Has that effort made Sacramento a better place, or at least more convenient to get around in? The recent poll offers a hint: More people think their daily trek is easier now than seven years ago. Although the majority, 68 percent, still typically commute in their car, the number of people who use other means is on the rise. Seven percent of workers in the region say they often ride a bike to work, and 9 percent say they often walk all the way. Seven percent say they often take a bus, and 6 percent usually ride light-rail trains.

That might suggest that cities, counties and the state have been doing a decent job of spreading out transportation infrastructure spending, including highway widening projects, light-rail extensions, road repair work, new bike lanes on streets, and more housing close to jobs. But, then, some of it may simply reflect the fact that the huge slowing of the economy, beginning in 2007, took enough people off the roads to at least temporarily reduce traffic tie-ups.

Hugh Clark of CJI Research Corp., the company that conducted the phone poll, said one of the most interesting results was that 35 percent of people said they would use bus or light rail at least a few times a month for commutes if transit were nearby, ran often, and did not take too much longer than driving a car.

SACOG’s McKeever says that encourages him. “If even 20 percent of those people mean it, and if we could deliver that system to them, it would night-and-day change the transportation network in the region.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.