Sacramento CA Ballot Measure Threatens Light Rail Future


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A Sacramento County ballot measure that would levy a half-cent sales tax increase and generate more than $8.5 billion over 40 years could undermine the region’s ability to build expansion projects commuter light rail that would improve air quality.

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Sacramento is saturated with the wrong kind of housing, and the consequences of these short-sighted land use decisions go beyond cost of living or environmental issues. This could ultimately derail any hopes of extending light rail to the region’s suburbs.

Consider a planned community in Natomas. A The Bay Area Investment Company offers a mega-development on the corner of Del Paso and Sorento roads in the Panhandle area, with over 800 single-family homes, an elementary school, and significant recreational space.

Any housing California can develop is positive for a state mired in dire shortages. The problem is that this 180-acre project is too much like everything else in the city’s northern suburbs: it’s all low-rise single-family homes. The Panhandle development will take up 21 times the land of a proposed apartment complex on nearby Truxel Road, but produce only four times as many homes.

This type of recurring failure beyond the urban core threatens the region’s chances of expanding long-sought light rail, encouraging spreadinglow use of public transport and greater reliance on cars that poison our air and overheat our planet.

The Sacramento Regional Transit District has scheduled light rail service to airport for decades, and in recent years has considered lanes to Elk Grove, Citrus Heights, and faster service to Folsom — crucial projects for a healthier future in a region marked by some of the the worst air quality in the country.

A Sacramento County sales tax increase in the November ballot could undermine prospects for light rail construction. Wealthy developers and special interests funding the campaign are counting on voter ignorance and frustration with traffic conditions to allow blatant circumvention of regional infrastructure planning to get what they want.

Sacramento County voters could sound the death knell for a more transit-centric future if Measure A won more than 50% of the votes in November. And RT chief executive Henry Li, who has been obsessed with financial solvency since taking office in 2016, seems willing to take that risk if passing Measure A means his agency secures up to 3.3 billion dollars for the next 40 years.

“With this local funding to leverage both federal and state funding, it’s a historic amount,” Li told me in an interview in May. “If we miss this opportunity, we will face serious consequences over the next few decades.”

RT officials estimate that up to 75% of light rail expansion costs will come from state and federal governments. But the odds of getting that level of support are dwindling as Caltrans and the U.S. Department of Transportation increasingly focus on areas that are seeing more sustainable growth than Sacramento.

Li said he was “not trying to be just optimistic, but rather optimistic” that RT can attract the money it needs to build the $2.1 billion airport extension, the $825 million for the Elk Grove line and the more than $600 million to upgrade light rail. system and laying new leads to Folsom.

But money alone is not the answer.

Abyssal traffic prospects

A analysis by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the chief planning agency for 28 cities and counties, examined how Measure A would affect future light rail ridership and service times if expansion projects were built – in addition to the new highways the measure would pay for. . SACOG’s peer-reviewed findings suggest Sacramento’s light rail would be even more out of place than it is today.

Taking into account the number of passengers and the journey time which would change with the additional distance, SACOG determined that all three projects would result in negative figures, meaning that none of the new lines would be economically viable. RT would potentially lose money because it would not generate revenue from ridership, creating a situation that is actually hurting the agency.

For analysts at a state or federal agency, these are not competitive projects. It undermines one of Li’s central arguments in favor of the measure: having local money to attract a game will single-handedly solve RT’s light rail problems. It won’t, and to claim that the measure will magically lead to more light rail is a deception.

Li appears to place less emphasis on ridership projections and land use challenges and oversimplifies the obstacles the Sacramento area has placed in front of its light rail future, describing it as a “chicken problem.” and egg”. Transit ridership is down nationally, he said, which is true.

But as Analysis of the Urban Institute noted last year, the demographics of neighborhoods near public transit also influenced the drop in ridership. Transit hubs near working-class neighborhoods have not seen a major decline over the past three years, unlike more affluent or suburban areas.

When we talk about light rail to Natomas, Folsom and Elk Grove – suburban areas filled with malls, low-rise mega-developments and young families who can afford it – we are talking about communities with people who can work at home, buy expensive cars and hail public transport because they ignore it every day. For them, it is an ornament, not an essential element.

The centerpiece of the measure is the Southeast Capital Connector, a 34-mile highway that would connect Folsom, Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove, unlocking a new frontier of suburban growth on the region’s rural edges. For decades, planners and transportation officials have documented how the project would create sprawl and fundamentally alter the metropolitan area with new remote communities south of Rancho Cordova — miles from any public transportation.

Building the connector would change development patterns in a way that could ensure a future Sacramento in which cars are the only viable mode of transportation.

The Committee for a Better Sacramentothe umbrella organization spearheading the campaign, instead tried to whitewash the measure by portraying RT extensions as climate-conscious provisions that can appeal to a strongly pro-action electorate.

“This action will only improve our air quality,” said Michael Quigley, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs and campaign leader, in an interview earlier this year.

Of course, building the connector and undermining the light rail would do the opposite.

Cordova Hills Development Corp. and mega-developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, who spent $346,000 on signature-raising efforts, are likely relying on this because of the properties they own that would directly benefit. The same goes for the California State Council of Laborers, the California Alliance for Jobs, the Sacramento Region Business Association, and all the labor groups that are eagerly seeking four decades of taxpayer dollars.

Li believes that if you build it, people will come. “We don’t have enough public transport network and service to really meet the demand,” he said.

Nor does Sacramento have the demand to meet RT’s aspirations for its transit system. If Measure A passes, the biggest projects it pays for will make sure of it, giving RT billions of dollars to maintain services few beyond the city can use.

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Yousef Baig is The Bee’s Associate Opinion Editor and covers a variety of local and state issues for the Editorial Board. He previously worked at The Press Democrat, Petaluma Argus-Courier and Napa Valley Register. He is the eldest son of Pakistani immigrants, originally from Atlanta and a proud alumnus of the University of Georgia.

Jose P. Rogers