A controversial plan to build a three-stop light rail line between the River Cats ballpark in West Sacramento and the downtown Sacramento Amtrak station was approved on Monday, sending the project off to the Federal Transit Administration for approval.
The Sacramento Regional Transit Board, which is composed of city and county leaders, initially voted against the plan in mid-August, but reversed course earlier this week. Proponents of the plan include Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, city council member Steve Hansen and Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D–Sacramento), who secured $50 million in federal money six years ago to fund the project. .
“I sincerely believe that in order to further decongest our freeways and provide access to transit, we have to grow south and north as well,” Hansen said during the board’s August meeting. “Can this be extended out past Sacramento to Davis, so that there can be very significant benefits to bringing heavy commuter travis from Davis onto mass transit? I do think it’s a lot more than just a 1.1 mile to Raley Field. I think it’s the beginning of a partnership across the causeway.”
Supporters also mentioned that it would be detrimental to Sacramento to not use the $50 million earmarked for the project because it could mean losing federal standing for funding on other projects.
The project will cost around $130 million in total, which means Sacramento and West Sacramento would be on the hook for the remaining $80 million.
Sacramento council member Jeff Harris, who sits on the RT board, has criticized the plan being too expensive and questioned whether there would be enough ridership to justify the cost..
“If 1.1 miles costs $121 million to build, what do you think getting to Davis — which is another 11 miles — would cost,” Harris asked. He added that the extra cost of adding the light rail line didn’t seem like a good idea, especially during a pandemic.
“It will likely take us, my guesstimate is, three years after the virus clears to get our ridership back, and until that time, we’re going to be financially stressed at RT,” he said. “We do not need another albatross that loses money every year hanging around our neck.”
Other critics include council member Larry Carr, who said the plan was being sold on its potential for future development rather than what it would actually do. While he remained on the fence regarding the plan’s potential future benefit to the region, Carr voted against the new line.
“There was no real estimate of ridership, of who would be served by this, and no rationale given as to how the people of Sacramento would benefit from it,” Carr said. “The facts that had been presented don’t really support an expenditure of $50 million, but if there are other plans that are going to be developed in the future, then we should know about these things before we have to take a vote on them.”
Some early supporters of the plan have changed their mind. Josh Wood, CEO of Sacramento’s Regions Business Association, said while his group originally supported the plan, they didn’t think the project made sense for the present moment.
“The reality is that regional transit and the focus that we need to have going forward needs to be on modernizing technologies and about connecting workers with jobs, neither of which this project does,” Wood said.
He said the group originally supported the plan at its beginning stages when it was initially proposed as a longer light rail line that would have 21 stops and run through midtown.
While supporters say future development of the line is not out of the question, Wood said the money used on the current scaled back plan would be better used for modernizing transportation.
“We’ve changed our position for the reason and fact that it doesn’t do what public transit is supposed to do, which is that the people who need the ability to get to work need an alternative if they don’t have a vehicle,” Wood said. “This hobby train down the bridge isn’t doing that and it’s not going to make anything better and it’s not going to increase ridership.”
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