Both sides now

Everybody agrees that Sacramento needs to create a world-class transportation “hub” (with passenger train service, freight trains, buses and light rail) at the Union Pacific rail yard on 5th and I streets. And everybody agrees on the importance of making this center a focal point in the region’s public transportation system, linking us properly (for the first time) with the Bay Area, the foothills and the San Joaquin Valley.

What people disagree on—city officials, historic preservationists, business interests and rail operators—is how to best accomplish this after so many years of opinion-gridlock, conflict and inaction.

Here’s how the two sides differ:

The Sacramento Intermodal Transportation Alliance (SITA), a coalition of rail operators and central city business interests, holds the vision of a modern depot that brings buses, trains and light rail together about 400 feet north of the current historic depot. The SITA plan involves preserving and fixing up the old depot and connecting it to the new center via a pedestrian concourse. Also, their plan would involve moving the train tracks from their current location and separating the faster-moving freight lines from the passenger lines.

Meanwhile, historic preservationists and citizen activists—who have banded together as Save Our Railroad Depot (SORD)—hold a different vision. In theirs, the current 1920s depot, with its beautiful (though crumbling) brickwork, would not only be preserved—it would be enlarged, modernized and still serve as Sacramento’s depot. SORD’s plan calls for moving the tracks north only as necessary to accommodate wider passenger platforms.

Is it realistic to think the old depot—with its leaky roof, deteriorating brick and boarded-up windows—can really be transformed into a state-of-the-art, multimodal station? Rail experts and city consultants have many reasons for thinking it is not. Among other things, the crucial bus center planned at the site seems endangered by the preservationists plan because it would have to fit behind the existing depot and it is considered dangerous for buses to cross multiple tracks with such frequency.

The preservationists warn that the people at Union Pacific have a profit bias in favor of the “new” depot because it would better facilitate development (housing, offices, a hotel, restaurants) on a potentially valuable 37-acre parcel of land they own on adjacent property. Well, yes, the owners clearly do have a bias. But it’s hard to believe that all the city consultants who have weighed in against the preservationists share that bias. And, ultimately, “infill” development such as Union Pacific would be undertaking on that parcel should be looked at as a welcome component of “smart growth” and a part of the cure for Sacramento sprawl and our worsening air quality.

Ultimately, are the two visions all that far apart?

We don’t think they should be. We urge preservationists to accept victory in a city vow that the existing depot will remain, be restored and creatively utilized as part of a broader modern facility that gets more people using public transportation. We urge the group representing rail interests to get smarter and think more creatively about how to thoroughly integrate the historic depot into the design of the new hub.

Finally, we urge both groups to come together, get creative and simply work things out.