Regional Transit must improve, but needs money

Riders board a Regional Transit light-rail train in downtown Sacramento.
Riders board a Regional Transit light-rail train in downtown Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento Regional Transit needs to be safer, cleaner, not raise fares, reduce fare evasion, be easier to use and go more places more frequently. These are a few of the assertions that have been voiced in recent months by a variety of critics, including occasional riders, business leaders and advocates for seniors and the disabled.

While all these points have merit, they simply will not be effectively tackled through the shibboleths of better management or smarter allocation of resources alone. While improvement is always possible, RT has performed admirably in a very tough financial environment, seeking to put as much service on the street as possible while meeting the public’s expectations for safe, clean and inexpensive transportation.

Experience tells us that to operate a successful transit system, it must be convenient, reliable, safe and frequent. If these four requirements are met, both transit-dependent and occasional riders will use transit, as shown by TriMet in Portland and BART.

What also becomes apparent, however, is that sufficient financial support is required to underwrite and sustain these characteristics. When you compare RT’s financial support to that given to other urban transit systems, it is little wonder that RT struggles to meet public expectations. Other than fares, state grants and minor sources of revenue, which all California transit systems receive, RT gets only 0.1725 cents of Sacramento County’s sales tax for its capital and operating needs.

We need to approve a half-cent sales tax increase in November that allocates no less than 35 percent of the proceeds to RT. The Sacramento Transportation Authority board is scheduled to vote Thursday on moving forward with the ballot measure and on a spending plan.

Los Angeles County gives 1.5 percent in local sales taxes for transit operations, while Denver provides a 1 percent sales tax and Portland devotes a 0.75 percent payroll tax. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Agency, BART, and San Francisco Muni each get a half-cent sales tax allocation. The higher local support for these transit systems adds up to tens of millions of dollars more a year. It is no surprise that Denver is completing its light-rail system to the airport while Sacramento has struggled for 20 years to try to do so and that Portland has bus and light-rail fleets three times the size of RT’s serving roughly the same size population.

Instead of continuing the demoralizing and debilitating argument over how much to raise fares or whether to contract out RT’s work, it is long past time to realize that having a robust public transit system is necessary to have an inclusive and connected community, as well as a vibrant and livable future for our region.

We must recognize that we can only achieve that future with an adequate investment in public transit. Other communities have understood that investing in transit repays the public over and over, day after day. So should Sacramento.

Roger Dickinson is a former Regional Transit board member, Sacramento County supervisor and state assemblyman. He can be contacted at