Sacramento region has transportation plan for climate-change era

Construction crews wrap up work on the Fix50 project in Sacramento in 2014. A new transportation plan focuses on repairing existing roads and expanding public transit.
Construction crews wrap up work on the Fix50 project in Sacramento in 2014. A new transportation plan focuses on repairing existing roads and expanding public transit. Sacramento Bee file

A 20-year transportation plan expected to be approved Thursday is an eminently sensible blueprint to put the Sacramento region on the right track of improved air quality, more infill development and enhanced transit options.

Leaders of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, representing six counties and 22 cities, expect the board vote to be unanimous – a noteworthy sign of the broad consensus for “smart growth.”

In this era of climate change, it would be crazy to build new highways that would encourage sprawling developments in the suburbs and increase greenhouse gas emissions.

This plan doesn’t.

The blueprint totals $35 billion – an amount spread over 20 years – and correctly takes a “fix it first” approach, adding $2 billion to repair and maintain existing roads, and adding $200 million for transit. It cuts $600 million from new highways, doesn’t include paving into Cordova Hills or North Natomas, and calls for clearing up bottlenecks such as the Capital City Freeway in Sacramento and Highway 65/Interstate 80 in Placer County.

Also, SACOG members agreed that in the next 20 years, any work on the long-planned Capitol SouthEast Connector linking Elk Grove and Folsom would be nearest the two cities – not in the undeveloped swaths in between.

Importantly, the plan puts more emphasis on ways to get around the region without driving, with a goal of cutting vehicle miles traveled by 8 percent per person.

For instance, it envisions 10 commuter trains daily each way between downtown Roseville and downtown Sacramento, from where passengers could connect to the Capitol Corridor trains to the Bay Area. The hang-up has been negotiating with Union Pacific for a third track in its right of way reserved for passenger trains, but Mike McKeever, SACOG’s executive director, told The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board this week he’s more optimistic that a deal can be struck.

The plan calls for building a streetcar line between Sacramento and West Sacramento, expanding bus service and improving bicycle lanes and pedestrian safety.

While the plan uses the same growth estimates as the one endorsed in 2012 (811,000 more people and 285,000 new housing units by 2036), it forecasts 2 percent more infill growth and 2 percent less in undeveloped “greenfield” areas. Some groups want lower growth targets. McKeever says they underestimate the power of transportation projects to shape the kind of development that gets built.

But as the Environmental Council of Sacramento points out, this plan won’t succeed unless local governments follow through.

And, of course, funding is the biggest hurdle. SACOG counts on billions in federal and state money, including nearly $1 billion in state cap-and-trade funds and $600 million in state funding for bridges.

It also relies on tax hikes, most notably a half-cent sales tax in Placer County to raise $1.5 billion for projects during the next 20 years. Susan Rohan – SACOG’s new chairwoman and Roseville’s vice mayor – said public outreach is underway toward a possible vote in November.

As in prior plans, Sacramento County is supposed to ante up a new half-cent sales tax or the equivalent revenue – $2.1 billion – starting in 2020, with half going to roads and half to transit. That also hasn’t been approved.

There is no Plan B for the money. This blueprint should give regional leaders a much better case to make at the state Capitol and in Washington, D.C., that the money will be wisely spent.