Tricked-out transit

After years of cuts, will voters support funding to modernize RT?

If Regional Transit’s Mike Wiley had it his way, Sacramento County residents would already be on their way to a more fluid mode of transportation, where light rail extends into the suburbs, bus service is expanded, and there would be a “Green Line” to the airport and city trams serving many of the neighborhoods.

“It’s what the voters said they wanted when we surveyed them, and it’s what we intend to provide,” said Wiley, RT’s general manager.

But first the agency has to dig itself out of the hole that’s been dug by state budget cuts and falling local tax revenue. Thanks to a modest uptick in sales taxes, Wiley announced last week that the agency may soon restore some late-night light-rail service, and possibly restore some bus service early next year.

The real trick will be convincing recession-weary voters to tax themselves to expand the region’s underfunded transit system.

RT has conducted polls showing that a large majority of residents favor building a dramatically upgraded public-transit system with options like bus rapid transit, streetcars, extended light-rail lines, plenty more buses and more headways.

The same polling showed that voters weren’t willing to impose a half-cent sales tax on themselves to pay for it.

“It was the economy,” Wiley said. “People were very appreciative of our services and wanted to see us grow, but the economy was just too much to overcome.”

So the Regional Transit Board of Directors dropped plans for a 2010 ballot measure levying a new tax to fund what it calls its Transit Action Plan.

Wiley said research on a possible 2012 ballot measure will begin soon, and that the board will have its decision by the end of the year.

“What’s critical is early evaluation,” Wiley said. “Where we were two years ago was the public’s opinion was so negative about the economy that there was nothing you could do to give them information.”

It would take a one-and-a-half-cent sales tax, generating between $250 million to $300 million per year, to fully fund the Transit Action Plan, Wiley said. A half-cent sales tax would generate between $80 million to $85 million per year.

“The vision is to implement the full plan over a 30-year period—we’re not going to proceed and then when you get partway there, stop,” Wiley said. If voters won’t approve the full one-and-a-half-cent sales tax, he said, “We’d have to go back at some point and get the rest.”

Wiley said the RT board will do its homework over the next few months and decide what level of funding to place on the ballot.

In the past, Wiley has talked about wanting to build a transit system that provides “full access and full mobility for all.” A new study released by the Center for Neighborhood Technology suggests we’ve got a long way to go.

The ranks of Sacramento seniors will grow by 45 percent between 2010 and 2020. But the analysis showed that by 2015, 41 percent of seniors in Sacramento will live in neighborhoods with “poor access” to options other than driving.

“The baby-boom generation grew up and reared their own children in communities that for the first time in human history, were built on the assumption that everyone would be able to drive an automobile,” said John Robert Smith, president and CEO of Reconnecting America and co-chair of Transportation for America—two lobbying groups advocating for accessible public-transportation options nationally.

Wiley would be happy to give seniors, and the rest of the public, more transportation options. But it won’t be cheap.

In Sacramento County today, just one-sixth of one cent in sales taxes goes to Regional Transit. In San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties, the tax rate for public transit is one-half cent. In the city of Los Angeles, one whole penny on every dollar to go toward mass transit.