Editorial: Nonprofit board makes sense to keep streetcar project on track

The closer a Sacramento-West Sacramento streetcar line gets to reality, big decisions become more pressing. What would be the exact route? Where would the local funding come from? And who would be in charge?

One governance option being discussed has much to recommend it – a nonprofit board with public and private representatives.

It makes sense because the trolley line would traverse two cities and two transit districts – Sacramento Regional Transit and the Yolo County Transportation District. A public-private board would be better positioned than a government agency to recruit private investors and conceivably to raise tax-deductible donations.

And, importantly, a nonprofit board would be more attractive to the developers, property owners and businesspeople being counted on to help pay to get the line up and running.

It would be similar to the nonprofit that oversees the trolleys in Portland, widely seen as a success. Here, the nonprofit would contract with a transit agency – likely RT, since it is the only one in the area with light-rail experience – to actually operate the line, providing the drivers and maintenance staff.

While Regional Transit hasn’t officially taken a position, General Manager Mike Wiley is definitely on board with the nonprofit idea. It’s essential that all the partners with a stake in the streetcar project, particularly the private property owners, have a say in how it’s run, he told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board.

The Downtown Sacramento Partnership hasn’t taken a formal position, either, but says that a nonprofit board would work well with the public-private partnership that is being forged for the streetcar line.

The working financing plan calls for property owners within three blocks of the line to be assessed a fee. Because presumably they would get the most benefits, those closest to the line would pay a higher rate than those in the second or third block out.

If all goes as hoped, the streetcars could be running by late 2017, connecting downtown West Sacramento, Raley Field and the riverfront, crossing over Tower Bridge and then linking Old Sacramento and downtown, including the arena scheduled to open in late 2016.

The synergy with the arena is promising. So is the potential to boost redevelopment along K Street, also on the streetcar route.

If the trolley line happens, Wiley said there’s a “distinct possibility” that RT would move its light-rail trains off K Street – as the downtown partnership strongly supports – and put them on existing tracks along H Street toward Sacramento Valley Station. Along the way, passengers could step off at the city and county office complex or the planned new county courthouse.

Streetcars promise to be a quicker form of mass transit for short trips and could also attract visitors and boost economic development. Depending how much residential development happens on the West Sacramento riverfront, the line could eventually become a commuter route for office workers in downtown Sacramento.

A policy steering committee, which includes representatives from all the public and private partners, is exploring the key issues. The committee will soon get advice on governance and financing from consultants being hired by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which is coordinating the project.

The discussions are picking up steam because the streetcar line reached a major milestone in May, when the Federal Transit Administration gave its initial green light. That could eventually lead to federal money to cover as much as half the estimated $150 million cost for the 3.3-mile starter line. The remainder of the financing would have to come from local, and perhaps some state, sources.

The key decisions are to come in the fall. Before the end of the year, officials hope to come up with the local financing plan, confirm the preferred route, finish an environmental review and pick the governance structure. To stay on track for a 2017 launch, the goal is to have federal transit officials include the streetcar project in President Barack Obama’s recommended budget early next year.

That’s a tight timetable. Consensus on governance, financing and other critical issues would be a big help.