Back-Seat Driver

Tug of war at Sacramento transit agency

Is Sacramento Regional Transit about to give short shrift to its light-rail lines in Rancho Cordova and south Sacramento in order to focus on fixing the transit system in the downtown?

That was the concern expressed by some local leaders this week when transit officials agreed to create a special committee to team with downtown business leaders on cleaning up and improving the system in time for the downtown arena opening in 20 months.

RT has a limited budget, with no immediate prognosis for more funds. Yet, this week, its directors started talking about dozens of upgrades the system could use, including many related to security and safety, to woo some of the thousands who will be traveling downtown to arena events starting in 2017.

That has county Supervisor Don Nottoli worried. He represents the south county. “I’m not confident we have … the resources … to do what we need to do downtown, and resources for other parts of the system as well,” Nottoli said.

Nottoli’s comments came after RT board Chairman Jay Schenirer, of central Sacramento, appointed himself and two downtown representatives, Steve Hansen and Phil Serna, as well as RT Vice Chairman Andy Morin of Folsom, to the committee.

Rancho Cordova Councilwoman and RT board member Linda Budge asked to be on the committee, saying her city, which is bisected by light rail, has a lot at stake. Schenirer said no, but later agreed to allow her to be a fill-in member.

The tug of war at RT stems from demands a few weeks ago by downtown business leaders for RT to do some serious housecleaning to make itself appealing to arena-goers, including marketing and branding work, such as painting buses, and upgrading the agency’s 1980s-vintage logo and blue and yellow transit colors.

Several in the business group, which includes developers David Taylor and Mark Friedman, say they aren’t asking RT to focus solely on the downtown. Board members Hansen and Serna both have said they see the moment as an opportunity to upgrade the entire system.

Taylor is pushing for fast action, telling RT this week the clock is ticking. “We’re eager to start meeting as soon as you can even ... this week,” he said. “We’re ready to go to work.”

Suddenly, he’s Mr. Transit

Taylor has long been known as Mr. Downtown in Sacramento. He built the Sheraton Grand Hotel, the Esquire building, the 1201 K building, and the U.S. Bank Tower on Capitol Mall, and he was the city’s developer for the new City Hall building.

Now, to his own surprise, he’s emerged as Mr. Transit. Taylor is leading the charge to shore up RT’s light-rail system, and is the most vocal business community champion for a proposed $150 million downtown streetcar line.

It’s a big turnaround. Taylor admits he rarely gave a thought to the light-rail trains and buses that have trundled past his downtown buildings over the years.

Why now? Taylor says his view on transit and its role downtown has recently changed. He used to see transit as a customer-unfriendly system for people who had no other transportation options. The arrival of the arena on the downtown scene, and discussions about a downtown streetcar, made him realize transit, if operated well, can be a major tool to help build a better downtown with more residents and businesses.

“It is easy to not look at it as an asset, and I fell into looking at it that way,” he said. “Now, with the arena, and with private (financing) going into the (proposed downtown) streetcar line, it has forced me to think: Do I think these assets are truly worth investing in? And I am convinced they are.”

But, he said, light rail has been run bureaucratically for decades. The transit agency needs more of a business mentality, he said. That is where he, Kings principal Mark Friedman, Republic soccer team founder Warren Smith, downtown attorney Tina Thomas, and others come in, he said.

“There is no reason for us not taking advantage of RT and making it into its best version of itself,” he said. “It’s of the moment because we have the ability to say to prospective downtown tenants and residents, there is a reason to live down here now, and to put your new stores here now, and those reasons include not just the arena but a potential soccer stadium, a renewed overall interest in urban living and a potential streetcar system that will allow you to easily get around and you won’t have to drive everywhere and pay for parking every time you move your car. The market is ready for it.”

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