The State Worker

Highway 50 drivers, your daily commute is in for a big change. Light rail users, you too

Commuters on the Highway 50 corridor who deal daily with the aggravation of congested roads and skimpy light rail service may actually see their commute get easier in the next few years.

State highway officials, light rail officials and a group of local environmental activists last week worked out a behind-the-scenes deal to position local rail and freeway operators for new state funds to help speed up the east county commute into downtown.

The massive $452 million plan involves several changes to the highway, to some city streets, and to light rail service, including two high-profile projects, extending the Highway 50 high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes all the way into downtown, and for the first time in the region, creating a limited-stop express light rail service during peak commute hours.

Currently, the Highway 50 HOV, or carpool, lanes run from the hills in of El Dorado County to Watt Avenue. Caltrans will extend those lanes westward through downtown as far as the Pioneer Bridge over the Sacramento River into West Sacramento.

Caltrans local district director Amarjeet Benipal said the project fills “a critical gap” for HOV. He said the work will include sound walls in the Stockton Boulevard and 65th Street areas.

Planning documents indicate work could begin in 2019 and conclude in 2024.

Sacramento Regional Transit, for its part, will upgrade its light rail service along that corridor in several ways.

Beginning in June, SacRT will expand night-time service to Folsom until midnight. Currently, Folsom service stops at about 7 p.m. making the rail system unusable for late-hour workers and people going to the downtown arena or other evening events.

The agency plans to follow that by adding 15-minute service to and from Folsom instead of the current 30-minute arrivals.

The most notable transit change, though, will be the introduction as early as 2020 of limited-stop express trains during morning and afternoon commute hours on the Gold Line, potentially cutting 10 or more minutes off the trip between Folsom and downtown.

That service is not likely to begin until 2020 or 2021, SacRT officials said.

The plan came together last week when local environmentalists and Caltrans resolved a years-long dispute over the state's efforts to expand Highway 50, an environmental representative said on Friday.

Initially, the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS) and the city of Sacramento opposed adding carpool lanes on Highway 50 in downtown, contending it was a narrow, car-focused and ultimately unsatisfactory solution to east county congestion.

The Sacramento City Council in 2002 voted nearly unanimously against funding to even study the idea. Several council members at the time said HOV lanes - which become regular all-user lanes during non-commute hours - would just encourage more suburban sprawl and more traffic.

More recently, city officials have looked more favorably on the plan, and have cooperated with Caltrans to use some related project money to make improvements to city streets near Highway 50 in the downtown area.

That includes money to turn 14 blocks of Broadway, near the Department of Motor Vehicles headquarters, into a more pedestrian and bicycle friendly street, and build a new block-long street just east of 28th Street between X Street and Broadway, allowing drivers to use X Street instead of Broadway to access the Highway 99 southbound on-ramp..

For its part, ECOS twice sued Caltrans to stop Highway 50 carpool lane plans. The most recent of those lawsuits became the fulcrum for last week's negotiated deal.

ECOS President Ralph Propper said his group formally agreed on Friday to set aside that lawsuit in exchange for Caltrans' agreement to commit more funds to improve light rail service in the corridor, in hopes of making that service more of a real alternative for commuters.

"Basically our lawsuit will go away," Propper said. "It's good that RT is getting (more) money, for such a cash-strapped organization. It means (bolstering) other means of transit, not just more lanes for cars."

The last step to turn the plans into reality comes next month. Caltrans and SacRT already have some of the funding they need. But they need more. They have applied jointly, along with the city of Sacramento for $115,000 in state funds to complete the financing.

That money would come from Senate Bill 1, the state gas tax increase passed last year by the governor and the Democratically controlled state Legislature.

Their SB1 funding request got a critical boost last week when the California Transportation Commission staff recommended that it’s commissioners allocate $110 million to the project, almost the entire amount local entities are seeking. The commission will decide in May.

Separately last week, SacRT won $40 million in competitive grant funds from another state entity, the California State Transportation Agency, to begin buying new low-floor light rail vehicles, some of which will be used on the Gold Line, and will provide enough trains to create the express service.

Transportation planner James Corless of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which assisted in the request for state funding, said the cooperative approach represents a smart way of doing business.

"This is a big deal," he said. "We are only going to be competitive and build a better region if we have more of those kinds of partnerships."

He defended the Caltrans plans to expand its HOV network on Highway 50 and other local freeways, saying he and others do not view the lanes as just about carpooling or bus travel anymore. Corless said the added lanes could become conduits at some point for other travel modes, including potential group travel on autonomous vehicles.