California Forum

Need to improve RT service? Start by axing streetcar project

Rendering of proposed Old Sacramento Station with two streetcars and Tower Bridge, part of a proposed streetcar project linking West Sacramento and Sacramento.
Rendering of proposed Old Sacramento Station with two streetcars and Tower Bridge, part of a proposed streetcar project linking West Sacramento and Sacramento. HDR Inc.

Measure B’s loss last November worsened Sacramento Regional Transit’s financial distress, caused in part by its board making bad decisions in using Measure A sales tax revenues.

For a bailout, RT was counting on Measure B, which would have doubled its sales tax revenue from Measure A. Now RT is negotiating tougher labor agreements, but it still is desperate and wants a “son of Measure B” on the 2018 ballot.

In the spirit of lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, I would like to point Regional Transit leaders to productive actions they could take now to improve RT service, not just downtown, but in outer parts of the region, as well.

Scrapping the circulator streetcar plan would finance these improvements. You say that money earmarked for the streetcar cannot be used for other purposes? Not so. Let’s consider a few options.

Originally billed at $150 million, the streetcar now carries a $200 million price tag. To pay for this, regional leaders including RT’s board propose to take more money from RT to benefit downtown developers. They covet RT’s Prop. 1A money. California voters passed Prop. 1A in 2008 providing about $9 billion for the construction of a high-speed rail system; $25 million of this amount was earmarked for Regional Transit to improve its light rail lines connecting with the high-speed rail station.

By working with the Federal Transit Administration to obtain a federal matching grant of $25 million, Regional Transit could use the resulting $50 million to fit its newest light rail cars with low-floor center sections. It could operate these cars on the Blue Line, speeding up its service and enabling the removal of the ugly and intrusive high-level mini-platforms at all Blue Line stations in the suburbs as well as those on the K Street Mall. This measure would be a highly visible and rewarding down payment on changing the entire light rail fleet to modern, low floor cars.

Regional leaders also covet the state’s cap-and-trade program to provide another $30 million for the streetcar, which actually will lead to more auto use, less transit use and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Regional leaders could apply this money to RT light rail instead. Working with the FTA to obtain a matching $30 million, RT would gain $60 million to improve light rail to double track the outer end of the Gold Line into Folsom, enabling RT to establish its long-promised express service on this long line, which would result in much more transit patronage taken from autos.

Alternatively, RT could group together with the above revenue sources another $35 million that West Sacramento has pledged to the streetcar. With a federal match, there would be a total of $180 million that RT could use to build a beautifully designed light rail extension to West Sacramento City Hall.

So, let’s stop wringing our hands over RT’s financial plight and do something constructive to improve it. Aborting the frivolous and useless downtown streetcar project is an excellent place to start. The examples shown for making near-term substantial improvements to RT’s light rail service can be accomplished with responsible local and regional leadership. Can our region’s leadership grasp this opportunity?

Greg Thompson, professor emeritus of Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University, is the vice chair of the transportation committee for Eye On Sacramento. He can be contacted at