Arena provides spark for fixing Regional Transit

Riders board a Regional Transit light-rail train at the station at Eighth and O streets last year.
Riders board a Regional Transit light-rail train at the station at Eighth and O streets last year. Sacramento Bee file

If it takes the new downtown Sacramento arena to finally improve service on Regional Transit, so be it. But safety, timeliness and cleanliness must get better for all riders, not just well-heeled fans headed to see the Kings.

At times, RT officials have been too quick to downplay problems. Now, they’re partnering with business leaders to fix them before the arena opens in late 2016. The business group, convened by RT board Chairman Phil Serna, addressed the full board Monday night. At the board meeting Jan. 26, the staff is to recommend the next steps.

All this encouraging talk must be backed up with action. There are many details to be worked out – not the least of which are how much the improvements will cost and where the money will come from.

Still recovering from the recession, the agency will likely start by reallocating money from its $150 million annual operating budget, said RT General Manager Mike Wiley, part of a delegation representing the new alliance that met Thursday with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board.

This overhaul will not be quick or easy. It’s not merely about emptying station trash cans or sprucing up light-rail cars, though that would certainly help RT’s image. It’s about significantly improving security and helping the homeless get to services, so riders feel safe not only during commute hours, but at night.

It will require a change in how RT does business, such as making one group of workers accountable for all maintenance at a rail stop and signing more agreements – like the one with a private developer at the 29th and R Street station – to refurbish stations.

Some initiatives already underway will help. Following two high-profile shootings on light-rail trains early last year, RT sought advice from outside transit experts. Their suggestions are on the to-do list, including deploying plainclothes officers at hot spots and improving surveillance cameras.

Also, RT is about to unveil a new smart fare card – called the Connect Card – that can be used on other regional bus lines and that will allow more flexibility on rates. Officials are looking at ways to reduce fare evasion, which is far higher than the official estimate of 2 percent of about 47,000 weekday light-rail riders. RT now gets about 22 percent of its revenue from fares; increasing that to 30 percent or more would generate cash for improvements.

At the editorial board meeting, developer David Taylor described RT as “close to broken,” and readily acknowledged that improving the system is in the interest of downtown businesses. In this instance, their interests coincide with RT’s current and potential riders.

Besides wanting to make it easy to get to the arena and other developments downtown, Taylor is among the downtown property owners also involved in a potential streetcar line. Regional Transit would likely get the contract to operate it.

As for RT, it is not only facing the arena opening, along with a possible soccer stadium in the downtown railyard, as a deadline to improve service. It could go back to voters as soon as November 2016 to renew the county sales tax for transportation, Serna noted.

Enhancing Regional Transit isn’t just important so that people going to the arena have a nice experience. It’s also crucial to the Sacramento area’s long-range goals of improving air quality, lowering carbon emissions and getting more people, of all income levels, to use mass transit.