Bruce Maiman: Think about rail before development

I was ready to be sufficiently angry about our inefficient approach to expanding light rail. Regional Transit’s extension of its Meadowview line to Cosumnes River College is long overdue, but as RT General Manager Mike Wiley recently pointed out, the project was costly because it had to squeeze through an established neighborhood. Relocating a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. valve alone will cost as much as $100,000.

This is the price we pay for our shortsighted resistance to mass transit. We always think the solution to too many cars is to widen highways when we should be making it easier for people to leave their cars at home.

“About a decade ago we went through exactly that issue,” says Mike McKeever, CEO of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, which has pushed for transit-friendly development. “Can we continue to grow outward and have more highway construction, our go-to travel choice?”

“Multiple studies with very sophisticated data yielded a very unsurprising answer: That will be a disaster,” he told me.

We’re stuck retrofitting in established communities such as Roseville and El Dorado Hills, where long-range plans for light-rail expansion are lined up. But in pending developments such as the Jackson Highway corridor southeast of Sacramento, we’re actually putting the horse before the cart.

At Township 9, the 65-acre infill development in Sacramento between Richards Boulevard and the American River, the side-platform light-rail station on North Seventh Street and Richards was a true public-private partnership. Developers wanted something glitzy to fit their vision of the neighborhood. “They actually paid for and built all the stuff you see above ground at that station out of their own pocket,” Wiley told me. “It’s probably the most elaborate station on the light-rail system.”

It looks strange now, sitting alone, awaiting passengers, but it’s better than squeezing it in after the neighborhood has been built. And it will be needed. If Sacramento’s explosive growth in the last 15 years isn’t convincing enough, recall your morning commute in last week’s downpour. Light rail could have provided an attractive alternative.

On Labor Day weekend, I watched motorists sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 17 all the way up to Campbell. Years ago, Santa Cruz could have gotten rail travel to the South Bay, but locals feared an influx of “outsiders” moving to their little hamlet. The rail line never happened. Streets clogged anyway as more people moved there and farther south to new housing developments in Watsonville.

“The idea that you’re going to somehow prevent people from coming by not building rail is silly,” said Lew Fulton at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.

Attitudes are changing. Ambitious rail projects are underway in Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and even Los Angeles – car-centric cities where taxpayers are choosing rail over roads.

What kinds of taxpayers? Two completely different kinds: Millennials, who want non-car alternatives to getting around, and baby boomers, who want options as their driving skills deteriorate with age.

The challenge is funding. North Natomas was designed with room for rail as development occurred, but money wasn’t available and still isn’t.

That’s too bad. Such funding is a wise long-term investment. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the nation’s largest transportation research agency, in 1982 the average commuter wasted 16 hours sitting in traffic. In 2011 it was 38 hours, costing each motorist $818 annually, and costing businesses $121 billion in lost worker productivity. That’s equivalent to the lost productivity and direct medical expenses of 12 average flu seasons.

A new UC Davis study co-authored by Fulton notes that expansion of mass transit worldwide between now and 2050 would save public and private sectors more than $100 trillion – and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 1,700 megatons annually.

I don’t object to people driving. My objection is that we lack the options not to drive. I take Interstate 80 to the Watt Avenue light-rail station. From the train platform, I see motorists on I-80 and the Capital City Freeway crawling in gridlock. In a few stops, the train – the same line that eventually will go to Cosumnes River College – gets you anywhere in the capital with no parking hassles.

Had the rail line originally been built to Sierra College, or even Roseville, ridership would surely be higher, highway traffic would be lower, and someone somewhere would say we were meeting our carbon emission goals. Would that be so bad?