Sacramento streetcar project deserves to stay on track

Supporters of a streetcar line in Sacramento point to the one in Portland, Ore., as a model.
Supporters of a streetcar line in Sacramento point to the one in Portland, Ore., as a model. Seattle Times file

It’s crunch time for the Sacramento-West Sacramento streetcar project – time for everyone to get on board, in particular the property owners being asked to help pay for it.

On Jan. 14, mail ballots are to go out to private property owners within three blocks of the proposed route in downtown Sacramento and midtown. The question: Do they support a tax assessment to help build a 3.3-mile starter line? Results are due Feb. 17.

The advisory vote is not legally binding, but streetcar supporters say it is “morally” binding. Unless it passes, proponents will not proceed to the official vote – to be conducted by mail in May – among about 3,700 registered voters in the assessment district. A two-thirds majority is required to start levying the special tax.

If the advisory vote fails, the streetcar project would come to a grinding halt after nearly a decade of groundwork.

If all goes as planned, streetcars could start running by late 2017, going from downtown West Sacramento, past Raley Field, across Tower Bridge, turning north through Old Sacramento then east along the railyard and Sacramento Valley Station, heading south toward the planned downtown arena, and then tracking east again along K Street past the Sacramento Convention Center to 19th Street in midtown.

Supporters including City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents downtown and midtown, say trolleys would appeal to tourists and suburban professionals who would never ride a bus and are key to the vision of 30,000 people living downtown.

Construction is projected to cost $150 million. Half would come from federal transit funds, officials hope. West Sacramento would throw in $25 million. Sacramento is on the hook for $50 million.

Promoters hope that of Sacramento’s share, $10 million would come from the state, $7 million from the city and $3 million from Sacramento County. The remaining $30 million would be generated by the special tax imposed on owners of about 1,200 parcels.

The 30-year tax would be higher for properties closest to the trolley line and would be based on assessed values. For instance, Hansen’s home three blocks away would pay $36 annually, while a vacant parcel might pay $8,000 and a high-rise such as the U.S. Bank Tower on Capitol Mall about $60,000 a year.

Some bold names in Sacramento development circles are on board. Mark Friedman and David Taylor told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board last week that they are convinced that a streetcar line would boost development downtown, ease the commute for workers in their buildings and enhance the value of their investments. The biggest landowners in the district – the Kings ownership group – are also supportive. The team has already agreed to pay $500,000 as part of a deal to reduce traffic congestion at the new arena, and would be on the hook for about $100,000 in the assessment.

The holdup may be out-of-town property owners who are less invested in Sacramento’s future and who don’t want to pay more for a streetcar line – either because their buildings are already full and they don’t see the benefit, or because their properties are struggling and they can’t afford it.

Over the next month, proponents will be putting on the hard sell, seeking a vote of confidence well above a simple majority of returned ballots, weighted by the assessed value of property.

To sway reluctant property owners, the trolleys would run on K Street and light rail trains would move to H Street, costing an additional $17 million. If the line gets built, it’s likely to be run by a nonprofit board with private representatives – a setup also designed to appeal to developers and businesspeople who want the streetcars to be separate from Regional Transit.

If property owners don’t agree to the assessment, supporters say there is no plan B. This is a bet on the future of downtown Sacramento – one well worth taking.