Back-Seat Driver

Should Sacramento’s streetcars be modern or vintage looking?

Should Sacramento’s planned downtown streetcars be modern, with low floors for easy entry and air conditioning, like this one in Portland, or ...
Should Sacramento’s planned downtown streetcars be modern, with low floors for easy entry and air conditioning, like this one in Portland, or ... Seattle Times

Ride VeloCab owner Marc Christensen, who conducts history tours and pub crawls in his brightly colored pedicabs, isn’t worried that Sacramento’s proposed downtown streetcar system might take business from him.

“Not at all,” he said. There’s room for more than one type of transit that can get people around in leisurely fashion downtown without having to use cars. “I’d love to see streetcars come back and become part of the fabric of downtown.”

But he’s concerned about one aspect of Sacramento’s plans, now full throttle, to reintroduce rail trolleys on a handful of downtown streets. Christensen has heard that streetcar planners are talking about buying slick, modern-style vehicles like those used in Portland and other cities. That’s a mistake, he contends.

Sacramento ought to go old-school, he said, with classic streetcars like the ones that trundled through downtown, East Sacramento, Curtis Park, Oak Park and other neighborhoods before cars took over in the 1950s.

“I like the experience of being on an open-air streetcar,” Christensen said. “The classic open-air streetcar has nostalgia, romance and a better relationship between passenger and the environment. It would set us apart from Portland. It would say we value our history.”

The vintage vs. modern debate has cropped up in recent weeks as Sacramento officials push to line up funding to build a streetcar system.

The Federal Transit Administration indicated earlier this week it is likely to give Sacramento up to $75 million, nearly half the cost of the project, if Sacramento lines up another $75 million to build the line, as well as an additional $17 million to switch light rail trains from K Street to H Street, making room on K for streetcars. Locals also must persuade the feds that their ridership calculations are acceptable.

A group of about 900 downtown property owners are voting now on whether they want to tax themselves to chip in $30 million of the needed $75 million in local funds. That make-or-break vote will be tallied later this month.

If approved and financed, the 3.3-mile line would run through downtown and part of West Sacramento over the Tower Bridge, past historic sites, including Old Sacramento, the downtown rail depot and the state Capitol, as well as past Raley Field in West Sacramento and the downtown Sacramento arena, now under construction. Fares are expected to be $1.

Despite pleas from people like Christensen, the streetcars likely will be thoroughly modern.

City and transit officials say they studied the possibility of using vintage wooden trolley cars, or modern replicas of old-style cars. But, as they learned more about the costs and trade-offs, it became clear that modern is the better way to go, says Fedolia Harris, one of the streetcar planners.

For one, planners say, it sends the visual message that downtown Sacramento and the emerging West Sacramento riverfront district are modern, convenient and forward-thinking.

There are pragmatic reasons as well. Federal disabled access laws require streetcars that people in wheelchairs can board easily and sit in safely. Vintage trolleys have high floors with steep steps. In contrast, modern streetcars have low floors, set at sidewalk height, allowing people in wheelchairs, walkers or rolling luggage to enter easily.

(Notably, Regional Transit light rail trains also have tall floors with steps, but that design requires the agency to build cumbersome concrete ramps and platforms at all stations to accommodate the disabled. RT plans sometime soon to begin replacing those tall-floor light rail trains with low-floor style, and rip out the ramps.)

There is a second pragmatic reason to go modern, advocates say. Vintage streetcars have windows you can open, but no air conditioning. A bunch of people sweating in 100-degree heat on a crowded trolley is not the kind of nostalgic experience riders want.

A compromise option would be modern streetcars, designed to look like vintage trolleys. Those would have the advantage of all-modern parts under the hood. However, they also would be high-floor, creating access problems, and they would not be air-conditioned.

Seann Rooney of the Friends of Light Rail and Transit group was among those who first pushed for a streetcar system, with vintage cars in mind. But, he says, vintage cars have old parts that will not hold up under daily use, and are hard to replace.

“It was a slow transition to sell us on the modern style,” Rooney said. “But we’re on board now.”

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

Related stories from Sacramento Bee