Ride the line: Is Sacramento ready for streetcar?

Streetcar will spare the air and connect Sacramento—but only if it survives this month’s big vote

Streetcars aren’t old-fashioned trolleys, proponents remind. See these streetcar designs from cities across the country.

Streetcars aren’t old-fashioned trolleys, proponents remind. See these streetcar designs from cities across the country.

Up north, there’s an urban myth in Portland that you can walk faster than one of the city’s streetcars, which are known to glide through the city’s core at tortoise-esque speeds. Two years ago, a journalist with Portland’s daily paper, The Oregonian, laced up his kicks to see if he could stroll to a victory on the streetcar’s four-mile route. That day, legs won. Yet nearly 5 million Portlanders ride the streetcar each year, anyway.

Sacramento’s proposed streetcar route is a 3.3-mile journey that connects West Sac, downtown and Midtown. The route begins along the revitalized strip of West Sac near Capitol Bowl and the city’s sleepy retro motels, then heads east toward the river, where hammers pound, the sounds of new housing shooting up at Capitol Yards near the Bridge District. Mayor Christopher Cabaldon told SN&R that some 10,000 new units are lined up for the West Sacramento riverfront area in the coming years.

Part of the reason, he says, is because West Sac’s been working to build a streetcar line for more than a decade, on the heels of Portland’s own streetcar renaissance in 2001. West Sac’s streetcar will be an 80-foot-long trolley filled with passengers, who will pay $1 to ride by rail over the Tower Bridge and into the neighboring city. Proponents say up to 6,000 people will use the so-called Riverfront Streetcar Project line every day, and that it will cut carbon emissions by getting people out of cars, and spur even more development along the proposed route.

Which brings us to the streetcar’s big moment: This month, some 3,700 registered Sacramento voters that live within three blocks of the proposed route (see map, page 19) will weigh in via mail on Measure B. This initiative, if passed, will tax property owners to pay for 20 percent of the line’s $150 million construction cost. The rest of the project’s funding will come from a mix of sources, including federal, state and city dollars, and the project would be completed by 2018.

Sacramento Councilman Steve Hansen has become the face of the streetcar campaign on this side of the river. He represents the central-city grid and insists that people want more transit options. But he also says that he wants to see more people leave their cars at home when they come to Midtown or downtown. “But when people get on the core, it’s hard for them to get around,” he explained.

The streetcar is part of the solution, he argues. “We need to invest in projects like streetcar,” Hansen says, “if we want to push more people out of cars.”

There’s no denying that car culture prevails. Just cross under the Tower Bridge’s mustard-gold arches, then hang a left on Third Street: The din of engines is an inescapable white noise. Sacramento is four wheels good.

Would a streetcar actually make a difference? And will Sacramentans really choose to ride?

Not drinking the Kool-Aid

Critics say that Sacramento's streetcar project isn't ready for prime time, that it's half-baked. Consider: A map of the streetcar route shows that it will extend along Third Street toward the rail yards and onto H Street. That sounds awesome—but in reality, Third Street is a dead end before the Amtrak station.

Jim and Delphine Cathcart say the project will be a dead end for urban-dwelling Sacramentans. The couple owns three properties that, if Measure B passes, would be taxed to pay for the streetcar line. Jim insists that, despite living near the line, he would not ride. “I would never use it. I would grab my bike, or I would walk. It’s just not efficient for me to wait for streetcar,” he explained.

The Cathcarts say they actually didn’t think much about the streetcar until this past January. That’s when city watchdog Eye on Sacramento released a critical 43-page report on the streetcar plan.

Craig Powell, who co-authored the report, dings the streetcar for everything from being too costly and overestimating its ridership numbers to worsening downtown traffic and not being a catalyst for urban-infill development.

Powell and others argue that the only reason Sacramento is building a streetcar is because the Obama administration is dangling a $75 million carrot via its “Small Starts” transit program, which funds things like new urban-rail projects.

“[I]t appears that much of the impetus for building such systems has been the willingness of the federal government in recent years to fund half of the costs of construction, which, in Sacramento’s case, is expected to amount to $75 million,” the EOS report reads.

The Cathcarts call the report an eye-opener. “We should inherently like streetcar,” says Jim, who’s been a player in the central-city preservationist movement for five decades. “It’s a natural for us,” added Delphine.

They point out that this new proposal is not the streetcar of a century ago (see historian William Burg’s essay, “Waiting for streetcar,” to the left, for more on Sacramento’s streetcar history). They argue, for instance, that no one will ride these new streetcars.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and Regional Transit estimate that more than 2 million people will ride each year on the proposed route (surely some of these riders will be people who already take existing public transit, but it’s uncertain how many; this past year, some 14 million rode on the regional light rail).

RT estimates about $1 million a year in revenue from fares and advertising on the streetcars, But if streetcars takes riders away from bus or light rail, this could mean less overall revenue going into the RT coffers.

The proposed streetcar route will connect West Sacramento, downtown and Midtown. Proponents say the fare will cost $1 (free for monthly pass-holders) and train headways will be every 15 minutes during weekdays.

Ridership forecasts are therefore crucial. RT says it will operate Sacramento’s streetcar, at an estimated $3 million-plus a year, and will count on those fares to make ends meet (see Cosmo Garvin’s look at how Sacramento intends to pay for streetcar operations, “Fare analysis,” on page 15).

Estimates for use in cities like Cincinnati have dropped as that city’s line approaches its launch date in September. Salt Lake City projected 3,000 riders a day, but as of last year hadn’t even cracked 1,000. There were also reports in Salt Lake of slow or delayed streetcars.

Delphine would prefer to see the city invest in low-cost, “cute-looking” natural-gas buses, which don’t come with major infrastructure costs. “Make them look like streetcars,” she said.

Streetcar proponents like to categorize the Cathcarts as opposed to everything. And while it’s true that Jim was a major opponent of the arena subsidy, and is currently suing the city over it, he says streetcar isn’t about developers and the Kings, but instead about quality of life: “We fought for 50 years for the livability of Midtown. And this is a continuation of the same thing.”

A bright streetcar future

At K and Seventh streets, the tree canopy is a welcome break from the creeping 90-degree sun. This intersection, and the surrounding J-K-L corridor, is primed for an injection of density and city life in the coming years. Those 10,000 new urban dwellers are at hand. Not to mention the Natomasites, Elk Grovians and everyone else who'll be converging on downtown for a taste of K.J.'s “Sacramento 3.0”—whatever that may be. And don't forget those thousands more moving into West Sac.

“I think it’s hard for folks to imagine that there will be twice as many of us living down here,” Mayor Cabaldon said of downtown’s up-and-coming reality.

That’s why we need the streetcar now, he argues. “We need to train folks into an urban lifestyle and into an urban mobility pattern from the beginning.” If you redevelop the urban core first without transportation, people are just going to drive everywhere, he explained.

You need bikes, and ride-sharing like Uber and Lyft, and light rail and buses, pedestrians and more. But you definitely need streetcars.

Cabaldon explains that rail and similar permanent transit infrastructure is a cue to developers about where the city wants to grow. A streetcar line also prompts riders to get on board.

“The reason streetcar is better than [the bus] is that nonregular users are more likely to try a fixed-rail transit option,” he said. This is because there is less uncertainty about where a streetcar is headed. That’s why tourists in San Francisco or Washington D.C. often take BART or Metro, but seldom take a bus. “It’s a very subtle difference, but it’s very important.”

Streetcar also exists on a “more human scale,” proponents say, which makes it more attractive to riders. When you’re riding on the streetcar, you’ll still be at eye-level with pedestrians. You’re still part of the urban milieu, unlike a bus or train passenger.

The streetcar is not for commuters, everyone says. It’s what they call a “pedestrian accelerator”: You take streetcar back to Midtown after Concerts in the Park, or you hail it to West Sac after Second Saturday.

It’s been nearly 11 years since Cabaldon and former Mayor Heather Fargo launched their joint streetcar plan. In 2008, West Sacramento voters approved a measure that would put $25 million in the streetcar construction pot. Last year, the federal government began helping Sacramento toward the streetcar-funding light, which will hopefully culminate with that $75 million grant (something proponents hope to lock in by the year’s end). Last year, Sacramento County and the city of Sacramento approved $3 million and $7 million, respectively.

The residents voting on Measure B will contribute only .5 percent of the total construction costs, yet the streetcar’s future hinges on whether two-thirds of them vote in favor by June 2.

If Measure B passes and the streetcar becomes reality, a private nonprofit will be established to oversee it while RT will directly operate it. In 20 years, more federal funding would allow the line to expand; proponents suggest Broadway or Sacramento State. There have been similar expansions in Portland.

Councilman Hansen dismisses concerns about ridership numbers and revenue. “I know it’s always popular to sell people with numbers, but there’s a livability argument to be made as well,” is how he put it.

He points out that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on roads and freeways and intersections and new off-ramps and never vote on it, or criticize or analyze the spending. Yet, with streetcars, people incessantly try to pick the plan apart. “We need to stop the analysis paralysis,” he said.

Nationwide, several streetcar lines have popped up since Portland kick-started the trend in 2001, including Seattle, Salt Lake, Tucson, Atlanta and Dallas. Lines are under construction in Washington D.C., Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit and Kansas City. Sacramento is part of the streetcar’s new wave, but is by no means blazing a trail. Proponents say we can learn from other cities’ mistakes.

Or we can make our own: As Cabaldon reiterated, if we don’t build new transit options now, the future downtown Sacramento will overflow with thousands of new cars.

“We don’t want people to say, in five or 10 years, ’Why didn’t anyone plan for this?’” Cabaldon said. “If we don’t have a really robust streetcar line and other transit options in place, the gridlock is going to affect you.”