The condition and future of Sacramento Regional Transit (SacRT), particularly the light rail system, has been much in the news recently:
- Back-seat Driver: Tug of war at Sacramento transit agency
- Regional Transit working on improvements, in response to business community
- Editorial: Arena provides spark for fixing Regional Transit
- Sacramento transit officials agree their light rail service needs improvement
- Sacramento business leaders challenge RT: Clean up your act
Everyone these days seems to want a better transit system. The problem is that no one wants to pay for a better transit system. The business leaders who suddenly want a modern, appealing, well-maintained light rail are the same ones that have worked over the years to suppress efforts at increasing the tax base for operation of the system.
SacRT has one of the lowest tax bases of any transit system. The chart at right shows the relative tax bases for the five counties in California that have light rail transit systems. Take this with a grain of salt – different agencies use different categories and summations, so there may be a little apples to oranges here, but is does provide an overall impression.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Agency, VTA, which serves San Jose and nearby communities in Santa Clara County, once had a light rail system very similar to Sacramento’s. Both are commuter lines.
- VTA opened in 1987 and now serves 42.2 miles. It originally used light rail cars very similar to those in Sacramento, but in 2003 it replaced it’s fleet with low floor modern cars. VTA has been part of the smart transit card Clipper system since 2011. VTA light rail cars and stations are welcoming, clean and safe.
- SacRT opened in 1987 and now serves 38.6 miles. In 2003 slightly more modern cars were added, but they were still high floor and supplemented rather than replaced the old cars, which are still in service (more or less) today. SacRT is projected to implement a smart transit card system, ConnectCard, sometime this spring. SacRT light rail cars and stations are dirty, poorly maintained, and feel unsafe.
What could be the difference between outcomes for the two systems? I think the primary difference is the tax base. SacRT simply does not take in enough income to maintain a good system, either light rail nor bus. The bus system is actually in better condition than the light rail system. Certainly improvements could be made to SacRT by shifting resources and using them more efficiently, but real and lasting change will take a higher tax base.
Now, when the arena executives, supporters, and downtown business interests are finally paying attention to the condition of the light rail system, is the time to move forward on a higher tax base. A tripling of the tax base would get us to where VTA is, which would be a good start. Time for our politicians and business leaders to step up!
I’ll be posting soon about some alternative transit funding options.