Streetcars not desired?

Last year, the citizens of West Sacramento took a leap of faith. They voted to fund the operation of a state-of-the-art streetcar system, connecting West Sac to its bigger neighbor across the river. The campaign was led by West Sac Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, with strong support from his counterpart in Sacramento, then-Mayor Heather Fargo.

Cabaldon hopes a streetcar line will help promote dense, walkable, “livable” new urban neighborhoods on the west side. That’s because streetcars work differently than buses and light rail. They have the permanence and predictability of rail, but they stop every two or three blocks, making them ideal for short trips and exploration.

“Think of it as a pedestrian accelerator,” said Mike Wiley, general manager of Regional Transit. “The typical pedestrian is willing to walk three or four blocks. A streetcar extends that.”

So, starting in 2006, officials from both cities, along with RT and the Yolo County Transportation District, got together and sussed out a tentative route for the first trunk of the streetcar system: It would begin on West Capitol Avenue near West Sacramento’s City Hall, run alongside Raley Field, across the Tower Bridge, up Capitol Mall, over to K Street and then loop around the Convention Center and back again.

Later phases could include spurs running along the river on the West Sacramento side, or down to Broadway, or even out to Sacramento State.

They even came up with a workable financing plan for the first trunk. West Sac would pass a sales tax (to take effect in 2013) to pay for the most of the operations of the system. Sacramento would shoulder most of the capital (construction) costs, largely through assessments on downtown property owners.

So far, so good. But while West Sacramento has stayed the course, her neighbors in Sacramento are getting cold feet. The Downtown Partnership, a group of downtown Sacramento property and business owners, has come out against the proposed alignment and financing plan.

They argue—quite reasonably—that the route might be more beneficial if it went up the R Street Corridor or near the downtown rail yards.

Also, there’s a lot of resistance to running streetcars up Capitol Mall. Some complain that the overhead cables needed to power the streetcars will block the view of the Capitol. Others, such as Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn, think that the mall should be given a face-lift and don’t want to foreclose any design options.

The Partnership also argued that it’s just a bad time to impose new taxes on its members. They recommend a “comprehensive analysis” of the issue. Accordingly, the Sacramento City Council will decide on May 5 whether or not to go ahead with a $400,000 study to evaluate various alignments, and alternative financing schemes.

That’s probably not such a terrible idea. But Bites hates to see the streetcar proposal forced into the slow lane.

“Time is of the essence, because we’re trying to shape development,” Cabaldon told Bites. With development stalled, now would be a very good time to get the streetcar plan in place, to guide that growth when it comes back. “The value of a streetcar is really at the beginning,” Cabaldon added.

West Sacramento has done its part. As many transit planners will tell you, it’s a lot easier to come up with money to build transit projects than it is to come up with the money to operate them, year after year.

Bites hopes the streetcar proposal doesn’t end on a shelf somewhere, studied to death, then ultimately passed over for something easier. We’ll get a better sense on May 5 whether the Sacramento City Council wants to push ahead or to stall.

“I think the real issue for the Sacramento City Council is going to be a gut check,” said Cabaldon.