An idea before its time

The slashing of Regional Transit has been tragic. Especially because RT was on the verge of launching something really exciting when the recession hit.

RT general manager Mike Wiley thought he’d be working right now on a campaign to pass a small sales-tax increase this November—to fund an expanded transit system that would, in his words, “provide full access and full mobility for all.”

Among the possibilities as part of RT’s Transit Action Plan: doubling bus service; an extensive streetcar system running from downtown to Midtown, to Broadway and out to the Sacramento State campus; light-rail extensions to the Sacramento International Airport, Folsom, Elk Grove, Citrus Heights and Roseville; a “Bus Rapid Transit” system, where city buses get their own right of way on major corridors like Stockton Boulevard, Florin Road and Watt Avenue.

But about five months ago, Wiley realized that a sales-tax measure would never fly in Sacramento in 2010. “The economy is driving down voters’ willingness to provide revenue even for critically needed services,” Wiley told Bites.

And mass transit is not only critically needed, it’s also critically underfunded in Sacramento. For every dollar we spend, just one-sixth of one cent in sales taxes goes to RT. In the Bay Area, the tax rate for public transit is one-half cent. Los Angeles dedicates a whole penny out of every dollar to mass transit.

A half-cent sales tax in Sacramento County would raise about $80 million in a year in today’s depressed economy.

That would require a two-thirds vote of Sacramento County voters—in a year when the electorate appears to be leaning Republican and “no.”

Wiley likes his chances better in November 2012, noting that tax measures generally do better during presidential votes.

“If we’re going to move ahead with growing the system, we need to get to the voters.”

Of course, a sales tax isn’t the only option. Recently, the state Legislature passed a law allowing local governments to raise vehicle-license fees by $10 a year. This measure would raise about $15 million a year for public transit.

Sacramento would also have the option of a local fee on gasoline to fund RT, which could generate about the same amount of money as a sales tax. Because each of these would technically be considered fees, they would only take a majority vote of county residents.

Wiley is emphatic that any new revenue would be to fund the Transit Action Plan—and not to claw back budget dollars lost over the last couple of years to state raids and recession.

“We’re not talking about going to the voters and using those resources just to get back to where we were.” Wiley figures that without new revenue sources, RT will “turn the corner” in about a year and begin to return to normal after a couple of very bad years.

“After we get through this next fiscal year, we’ll be able to create some reserves and begin to grow the service back.”

In the next 18 months, RT will introduce “smart cards” with embedded chips that allow you to ride RT, Elk Grove, Yolo and other systems; and will enable distance-based or time-based fares, sort of an improved version of the central city fares that were tossed out during the recent budget chaos.

Sounds pretty high-tech, but a real 21st-century transit system will be a bit harder to attain. Hopefully, the voters of 2012 will be ready for the challenge.