Train in vain

When it comes to high-speed rail, Sacramento is at the end of the line

Under current plans, Sacramento will get high-speed rail years after Fresno and Bakersfield.

Under current plans, Sacramento will get high-speed rail years after Fresno and Bakersfield.

Photo courtesy of the california high speed rail authority

Sacramento’s downtown boosters, urban design geeks and transit advocates couldn’t ask for a prettier picture than the one presented by the California High Speed Rail Authority. Go on to the authority’s Web site ( and call up the pictures and video depicting Sacramento’s old, contaminated rail yards, north of downtown, transformed by an elegant, futuristic high-speed rail station, with sleek bullet trains gliding through a forest of slender high-rises.

It’s impressive, but a little bit too much like science fiction—very cool, but very far off.

Even though the state’s high-speed rail system is slated to begin construction in about two years, it may not reach Sacramento for another 20 years, and even that isn’t certain. The Capitol Corridor line is one of the most heavily used conventional passenger rail lines in the country, but when it comes to high-speed rail, Sacramento is being treated like a backwater.

Last year, voters approved Proposition 1A, a high-speed rail bond measure intended to pump $9 billion into building the early stages of the colossal public works project. It is estimated to cost at least $40 billion to complete. California is also applying for nearly $5 billion in federal stimulus money that the Obama administration has earmarked specifically for high-speed rail projects. Assuming California gets at least a couple billion in federal money, that still leaves most of the funding largely unidentified.

Right now, the California High Speed Rail Authority plans to connect Sacramento sometime after the more lucrative Anaheim-to-San Francisco line is up and running. The authority says it can start construction in 2012, start testing the system in 2015 and open the system to the public in 2020. Along that first leg, towns like Fresno, Bakersfield and Gilroy will get high-speed rail service long before Sacramento does. A Merced-to-Sacramento route and another connection between the Central Valley and the coast would follow possibly a decade or more later, depending on funding.

That has chafed a few Sacramento leaders. Back in March, Mayor Kevin Johnson told The Sacramento Bee that he was “disappointed” at Sacramento’s second-tier status.

“I’m very interested in how we can expedite Sacramento being a part of the high-speed train,” Johnson said at the time. “We want to be a part of that first leg.”

SN&R has inquired with the mayor’s office about what Johnson is doing to get Sacramento moved up in the queue, but there have been no new details on the matter.

But the issue arose again at a recent public meeting at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments offices, where officials from the California High Speed Rail Authority, along with Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn and County Supervisor Roger Dickinson discussed Sacramento’s rail future.

“Maybe we could speed up the Sacramento part a bit, to 2020,” said Cohn, who, along with Dickinson, also serves on the board of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority.

Cohn noted that “Some of the areas slated ahead of us have some route issues,” referring to lawsuits and conflicts over rail alignments that are already popping up in the Bay Area. “If we want to get our section moved up as quickly as possible, we need to move forward on the planning process and the environmental review,” said Cohn.

Sparky Harris, senior planner with the city of Sacramento’s Department of Transportation, agreed. “There’s a lot of language in there that gives the High Speed Rail Authority board some flexibility. So it’s possible.”

High-speed rail is part of the city’s plan to transform the now abandoned rail yard downtown.

Photo courtesy of the California High Speed Rail Authority

In the summer, the city of Sacramento entered into a memorandum of understanding with the California High Speed Rail Authority, outlining how the agencies would work together on planning the system. The city is also thinking about high-speed rail as it plans its “Sacramento Intermodal Transportation Facility,” at the rail yard, which will bring together light rail, RT buses and regional buses, and possibly streetcars and high-speed rail—all in one location.

In the High Speed Rail Authority’s conception, the high-speed rail blends seamlessly with the intermodal transportation facility. After arriving at the station on sleek bullet trains that travel up to 220 mph, passengers disembark and board Regional Transit’s light-rail trains, or hop on bright yellow streetcars that snake through a bustling district of shops, offices and apartments. A trip from Sacramento to Fresno would take just an hour. A trip to Los Angeles, about two.

But Harris said it’s still too early to tell exactly how the high-speed rail will fit in the new station—notwithstanding the pretty pictures on the High Speed Rail Authority’s Web site.

“It’s not like we can draw a chalk line on the ground and say, ‘Don’t touch.’ But no, high-speed rail is not going to get lost in the shuffle,” Harris told SN&R.

Even if Sacramento ends up being the last community in California to get high-speed rail, it might benefit from Prop. 1A sooner. The initiative included $950 million for upgrading conventional rail projects around the state. The idea is to beef up the local feeder systems for the eventual build-out of high-speed rail. Sacramento’s Capitol Corridor could attract a big chunk of that money in order to add additional track, to completely separate freight and passenger operations along the corridor, and to increase speeds for the commuter trains.

Dickinson noted that a rail trip to the Bay Area now takes about an hour and 40 minutes, a bit longer than driving. “But if we can take off 15 or 20 minutes, the train then becomes an extremely attractive alternative,” said Dickinson.

In the meantime, Central Valley rail advocates are gently agitating for high-speed rail in the region.

“I’m an optimist. I think it can be expedited,” said Stacey Mortensen, executive director of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. She’s part of a working group of transportation planners and local officials up along the Merced-to-Sacramento leg of the system. The working group includes SACOG and the city of Sacramento.

The environmental review process for the Merced-to-Sacramento route is due to begin in January. Mortensen said that now is the time to start addressing possible conflicts about the route. “You can start getting your ducks in row. There are some things that are going to have to be debated, like farmland preservation,” Mortensen said.

She noted that while the Central Valley is great for high-speed rail because it offers long, straight stretches ideal for traveling more than 200 mph, much of that territory is active farmland, with complicated irrigation systems and other infrastructure that could be disrupted by the rail line.

Locally, alignment conflicts are bound to come up as well. “Sacramento is really going to have to debate the entry point for high-speed rail,” Mortensen said. Merely following existing rail right of way could be problematic, since much of that rail winds through older, built-out neighborhoods.

Along with lining up its ducks, Sacramento could use a little political muscle to advance its interests. Cohn noted that the High Speed Rail Authority board, with nine members, is mostly composed of people from Southern California and the Bay Area. The one Central Valley representative, Fran Florez, is from the Bakersfield region—which is due to be connected on the first leg of the system.

“Not one of those board members is from Sacramento,” Cohn said. He suggested that Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg could appoint a Sacramentan when a seat opens up.

For example, board member Lynn Schenk is still serving on the board, even though her term is expired. Board rules allow members to stay until their replacement is chosen. Schenk is the governor’s appointee, but Steinberg could suggest a candidate for the governor’s consideration.

“Between the governor and Sen. Steinberg, who knows?” Cohn said. “But we need to be represented.”