Payoff from streetcar line is worth a little risk

Passengers get off the new Dallas Area Rapid Transit streetcar last month. Dallas is the latest city to get on the streetcar bandwagon.
Passengers get off the new Dallas Area Rapid Transit streetcar last month. Dallas is the latest city to get on the streetcar bandwagon. The Dallas Morning News

We’d feel far more comfortable if officials were further along in firming up plans for the proposed Sacramento-West Sacramento streetcar line – especially in outlining how operating deficits would be covered.

Because they’re not, voters – who will start receiving mail ballots Monday to vote on whether to levy a special tax to help build the line – will have to go on faith. They’ll have to trust that if there are fatal flaws in the plan – ridership numbers, in particular – the feds will slam on the brakes by refusing to fund construction.

That said, the risk to taxpayers and public transit users is relatively small, and not enough to reject the project.

Approval of the tax assessment takes at least two-thirds support among ballots returned by June 2 from the 3,700 or so registered voters who live within three blocks of the proposed streetcar line in downtown and midtown Sacramento. While it was only an advisory vote, it should count heavily that the property owners and developers who would pay the vast majority of the tax said “yes” earlier this year.

The streetcar line would cost $3.5 million a year to operate, according to the latest estimates from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which is the project manager. About $1 million is to come from fares and advertising, and West Sacramento has a sales tax to generate $750,000. That leaves $1.75 million a year unaccounted for.

Officials are hoping to get new federal air-quality money and state cap-and-trade funds, but ultimately the city of Sacramento and Regional Transit could be on the hook.

They have to do all they can to avoid dipping into the city’s $394 million annual general fund, which pays for public safety and other core services. They have to keep hands off the $30 million a year in Measure A sales tax proceeds that RT uses to pay for existing bus and light-rail service, which was slashed during the recession and still hasn’t been fully restored.

If all goes as planned, streetcars would start running by late 2017 or early 2018. They would go from downtown West Sacramento, past Raley Field, across Tower Bridge, through Old Sacramento, past the downtown railyard and the new arena and end at 19th Street in midtown.

To build the 3.3-mile starter line, officials are seeking a $75 million federal grant next year. The local match would have to be in place by the end of the year. It includes the $30 million to be borrowed against the tax assessment, plus $25 million from West Sacramento, $7 million allocated by the Sacramento City Council, $3 million endorsed last month by Sacramento County supervisors and $10 million being sought from the state.

Officials are seeking a separate $17 million federal grant to move light-rail trains from K Street to H Street, a commitment made to downtown property owners.

In all the claims and counterclaims between proponents and opponents, it’s clear that a streetcar line is not going to be some huge economic development bonanza. But it can be another piece of the puzzle, along with the new arena, in revitalizing downtown, particularly to get more people living in the central city.

Streetcars are not going to transform public transit in the region, either, but they can help. Importantly, they can strengthen links between West Sacramento and Sacramento.

SACOG estimates that streetcar ridership would average 25,000 a day by 2035, but the Federal Transit Administration hasn’t signed off on that count. Local officials hope to resolve the issue by September. (RT’s light rail averages about 50,000 passengers on workdays, and buses about 51,000.)

While it’s too flippant to call it a “latte line,” as opponents do, it’s likely that many streetcar riders would be tourists, bar hoppers and young professionals who would never set foot on a bus, even one gussied up to look like a trolley.

Streetcars won’t make or break downtown Sacramento, but the potential upside warrants taking some small risk. Voters should keep the project on track.