If anywhere is a poster child for the effects of light rail on economic development, it is downtown Sacramento. Sacramento was one of the first American cities to build a modern light-rail line, opening its original 10-mile line in 1987 just a year after Portland’s. Since then it has extended that line and built two more, all of which go downtown, for a total system that is 45 miles long (compared with 60 miles in Portland).
Downtown Sacramento is mostly low-rise buildings with a few scattered high rises. Flickr photo by Sacramento Real Estate Photography.
As the capital of the nation’s most populous and possibly richest state, Sacramento is no small town. The urban area had 1.8 million people in 2015, slightly less than Portland and slightly more than San Jose. The city itself had half a million people, more than Atlanta, Miami, or Minneapolis. Continue reading
The Antiplanner will be in Littleton, Colorado tonight talking about housing issues. The event is open to the public and starts at 7 pm at the South Fellowship Church, 6560 South Broadway. If you are in the Denver area, I hope to see you there.
In the meantime, interesting news from Sacramento: the regional transit district is considering shutting down one of its light-rail lines for lack of ridership. As the Antiplanner noted two months ago, the agency has lost more than 26 percent of its transit riders in the past six years and has raised fares by 10 percent to make up for the lost revenue.
The light-rail line that it is considering shutting down is only 1.1 miles long–so it is more like a streetcar line–and it attracts just 400 riders per day. Despite this poor record, Sacramento still wants to build a 3.3-mile streetcar line.
Sacramento’s Regional Transit District (RT for short) is facing an existential crisis. The region’s transit ridership fell by 22 percent between 2009 and 2014, and preliminary information indicates another 6 to 7 percent decline is likely in 2015. The agency’s January, 2016 performance report shows a 9 percent decline from January 2015.
A light-rail train trundles its way through downtown Sacramento. Flickr photo by PaulKimo9.
Some of this downward spiral is due to low gas prices, but much of it is due to an 18 percent reduction in bus service and a 7 percent reduction in light-rail service between 2009 and 2014. Declining tax revenues after the 2008 financial crisis forced these service cutbacks. In turn, reduced ridership means reduced fare revenues, and RT has responded by raising fares, which is not likely to do ridership any good. RT is also thinking about asking voters for a tax increase, but with just 2.7 percent of the area’s commuters taking transit to work, support for the transit system may be slim.
The response of Sacramento streetcar advocates to voter rejection of their pet project reminds me of a little boy who has a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get the expensive Christmas present he wants. Like the little boy, it apparently never occurs to the streetcar crowd that the extraordinarily high cost of their scheme was too much for taxpayers to support. Instead, they act like they are entitled to the streetcar, and anyone who doesn’t want to help pay for something they will never use is just a grinch.
Building a streetcar requires tearing up perfectly good pavement that can be used by cars, trucks, and buses and inserting tracks. The cost of one mile of streetcar line can be more than the cost of a mile of a suburban four-lane freeway, yet the streetcar will never move more than 2 or 3 percent as many passenger miles per day as that freeway.
The streetcars themselves have fewer seats than a standard, 40-foot bus, yet cost nearly ten times as much and occupy more street space and so contribute more to congestion. Analysts predicted that a proposed streetcar in Anaheim would reduce the capacity of the streets to move cars by four times as much as the number of cars it would take off the road.
Sacramento wants to build a streetcar, and since everyone knows that streetcars increase property values, the city asked property owners to agree to pay a tax to help pay for it. Under California law, two-thirds of voters must agree, but the city must have believed that everyone loves streetcars so much that they would overwhelmingly agree to pay the tax.
Not so much. In fact, they couldn’t even get half to support it. The final vote count was something like 48 percent in favor.
Not to worry. Even though a nineteenth-century technology makes no sense in a twenty-first-century city; even though the people don’t want to pay for it; even though it has so far taken ten years to plan something that was obsolete a hundred years ago and certainly can’t respond to the almost daily changes in tastes, technologies, and travel patterns we experience today; they’re going to try to find a way to build it anyway. “We’ll look for other sources of funds,” said one city councillor. “We’re really committed to keep the project on track.” In other words, committed to stupidity.
Another day; another city getting scammed by the streetcar mafia. In this case, it is Sacramento, a city that has built 37 miles of light-rail lines and seen transit’s share of commuting fall from 4.1 percent in 1980, before light rail, to 3.2 percent in 2010.
In 2006, Sacramento’s metropolitan transportation plan admitted that, despite past plans focusing on “luring drivers out of their autos,” the share of transit riders was decreasing; and despite building no new roads and seeing huge increases in congestion, the amount of auto driving had doubled since 1980 (see page 3). So naturally, the plan recommended more of the same.
Apparently, that still didn’t work, because now they want to try something new. Since light rail wasn’t fixing any problems, they want to build 18 miles of streetcar lines costing $816 million, or $45 million a mile. The plan calls for a $125-$135 million “starter line” of 2.55 miles that will also share 0.75 miles of rails with light rail, reducing the light-rail line’s capacity to move people, which isn’t an issue because so few people ride the light rail.