California Forum

Get on board with the Aggie Express

For a city that once connected people from across the nation with the Transcontinental Railroad, we sure are having a hard time connecting the people in our own backyard.

When engineer Theodore Judah met with four prominent Sacramento businessmen in 1860 and pitched the idea of a railroad that would connect Sacramento to Omaha over a treacherous stretch of the Sierra Nevada, they broke ground on the venture a mere three years later.

Meanwhile, 145 years later, talk of an 11.7-mile light-rail route from downtown Sacramento to the airport, for instance, has existed for three decades. And due partly to funding restrictions, it’s nowhere near ready for takeoff.

But maybe that’s actually a good thing.

In the 30 years or so that local leaders have discussed a light-rail link to the airport, observers of urban trends have discovered that any given city’s most valuable asset isn’t convenient airport access, but rather a young, educated workforce.

As it happens, many of our region’s best and brightest live about 11 miles west of downtown Sacramento, in Davis. The problem is, the vast majority of UC Davis students aren’t sticking around when they graduate. Most are taking their fresh new diplomas – along with their aspirations, optimism, energy and ideas – to other cities instead.

According to UC Davis’ alumni association, only about 13 percent of UCD graduates currently reside in Sacramento County, compared with 40 percent for Sacramento State. That should be a massive wake-up call for civic leaders.

So what can be done? Quite simply, we need to extend Sacramento Regional Transit’s light-rail line to Davis as expeditiously as possible.

It’s absolutely critical for the future of this region that more of these students are interning at companies in this region, getting more summer jobs here, and coming to play – going to concerts, restaurants, clubs and sporting events. It’s this combination of career opportunities and quality of life that will help keep them here after they graduate. Davis’ farmland-locked geography creates a tangible psychological gap from the rest of our region. So we need to make it easier for them to get here.

While some UC Davis students have cars, many don’t. Freshmen aren’t even granted parking permits. And, of course, Davis is the bicycle capital of America, so a car isn’t even necessary.

Yolobus connects our cities, but with all the stops, trips can take nearly an hour. And the latest bus on a Saturday is 10:08 p.m. – closer to when college students are heading out on the town, not coming home. And while the Capitol Corridor offers train service between the two cities, it can be up to one to two hours between departures, with the last train leaving Sacramento at 9:10 p.m. Plus, it costs $9 per trip compared to light rail’s $2.50.

Neither option compares to a cheap light-rail ride with departures every 15 minutes, and an estimated 25-minute ride between cities. Light rail would be far cheaper than the Capitol Corridor, faster than Yolobus, more frequent than either one, and far more environmentally friendly than driving – all big incentives for college students.

Regional Transit’s chief operating officer Mark Lonergan says that if regional interest – and dollars – were there, a Sacramento-to-Davis extension running through West Sacramento would be highly attractive.

Lonergan believes that not only would the university and its 34,000 students provide a strong customer base, but so would the commuter base among the three cities. He also believes that a route to Davis would complement the proposed future streetcar system connecting downtown Sacramento and West Sacramento, perhaps even sharing some of the same tracks and providing easier access to Raley Field from both sides of the causeway. And downtown Sacramento’s new arena would benefit as well, tapping into a much larger audience for Kings games and concerts.

Other cities are already bridging the gap to their surrounding college campuses. In 2018, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System will complete its own 11-mile extension to UC San Diego, connecting the university’s 30,000 students to downtown.

As always, it comes down to money. Would West Sacramento or Davis or Yolo County or the university share some of the costs? If so, such a train could move full steam ahead.

Or what about private investment? In 1988, then-Sacramento Kings part-owner Gregg Lukenbill offered that he and his partners would contribute up to $30 million to help fund a light-rail extension to their Natomas arena and the airport. He told The Sacramento Bee, “If they pay their fair share, we’ll pay our fair share and get the damn thing built in three or four years.”

It didn’t end up happening, but that’s the kind of pioneering talk that built the West. So let’s apply that can-do spirit to a new Davis line, and delay the extension to the airport.

With the Transcontinental Railroad, four Sacramento civic leaders laid the tracks for a better region – and a better country, too. Now we have the opportunity to lay some tracks here again, with the potential to make a far bigger impact on our community.

To paraphrase the American author Horace Greeley, “Go West, Regional Transit.” The young men and women of our region are our round-trip ticket to a brighter future.