There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Light rail, the airport and the future of transit

Saturday, The Sacramento Bee asked the question Does light rail to airport make financial sense? Earlier in the week, Jude Lamare, president of the Friends of Swainson's Hawk, offered an opposing view to a Sacramento Bee editorial "Getting to the future / Transit plan is key to region's well-being." Each, starting from different points, suggests light rail to the airport is unneeded.

I disagree.

The Friends of Swainson's Hawk have the clearer case since their's is the immediate issue of whether the city of Sacramento should allow development of a parcel of land outside the urban services area that had previously been declared hawk habitat. The Sacramento Area Council Of Governments, which is responsible for regional transit planning, and RT, have jumped in on the side of the developer.

SACOG and RT explain (memo to Planning Commission):

The current Federal Transportation Bill will need to be reauthorized by Congress in 2009. We will want Congress to specifically list the complete Downtown to North Natomas to Airport (DNA) light rail line as a project eligible for funding in that bill. ... As the travel model information we have presented you clearly shows, the inclusion of transit riders from the Greenbriar project will significantly improve our argument. Conversely, if the City decides to reject that project now, even if it intends to reconsider its decision at a future date, our argument will be significantly weakened. ...
In addition, the developer has offered to donate the right of way and to build a station, a significant savings. But if Greenbrier remains hawk habitat, there would be no need for a station and the value of the right of way would be significantly reduced. Is SACOG and RT support of the Greenbriar developer's immediate plans and the potential influence of those plans on Congress' support of the project more valuable to the efforts to expand light rail in the region than the benefits that might accrue from remaining neutral on the Greenbriar project?

SACOG is currently putting the finishing touches on its look at regional transportation through 2035, and RT recently launched a parallel effort to revisit its 10-, 20- and 30-year plans. Expansion of transit envisioned in those plans will rely on voter approval of new sources of transit funding. Environmentalists should be transit's natural allies. Alienating them is not in transit's best interests.

The Bee should be promoting transit as an environmentally friendly asset and a valuable investment for the community. The distraction of the "financial sense" of one piece of a much, much larger puzzle just gives ammunition to those who feel all transportation ills would be solved with enough asphalt.

A local blog that routinely republishes the full text of material from The Bee, introduced The Bee's editorial by saying:
[I]f there is any reasonable weighting to what gets funded with local transportation funding, the bulk should go to improving the conditions for the form of transportation heavily favored by an overwhelming majority of people, cars: so lets upgrade and maintain our roadways and bridges.
Planning for the region's future needs to look beyond the horizon. Light rail to the airport is the last phase of a lengthy process. No one is proposing that light rail be built to the airport now. But the goal of eventually reaching the airport pulls the northern expansion of light rail, assisting in the redevelopment of the Richards Boulevard area, getting transit across the river and fulfilling the promise of a Natomas Town Center served by light rail.

The loss of Greenbrier's potential riders may have an impact of cost-benefit analysis of the final stretch of light rail to the airport, but abandoning the goal of reaching the airport will have a much greater impact on the entire effort to make transit an option for more people in the region.

The Bee editorial's view of the situation is exactly backward:
People like the idea of light rail to the airport. It polls well. The Sacramento Transportation Authority has said it is committed to having an additional transportation funding source in place for the county by 2012 that will raise an amount equivalent to a half-cent sales tax, or approximately $100 million a year. The new funding source almost certainly will require a public vote. The project most popular with voters is light rail to the airport. So planning for it is a political plus. But it's not enough to be popular.
If voters are to be asked to pay for expansion of transit, then those expansion plans must include popular options. Failure to do so only undermines the entire effort.

Environmentalists have not been consistent friends of transit. Their parochial concerns -- in this case hawk habitat -- always seem to trump the greater environmental good that making transit a more attractive option could provide. But then developers have shown little interest in transit and seldom can be seen to look above their bottom line.

As a transit enthusiast I feel as if I'm in the middle, voiceless, unrepresented. Transit needs to be something people choose to ride, not just the transportation option of last resort. That can only happen with expansion of transit options in the region.


wburg said...

I have to admit that I kind of like the idea of BRT, or at least a regular (15-20 minute headway) bus route, between downtown (say, at the train station) and the airport. The main problem would be that since the airport is 24 hours, buses would have to run 24 hours to. Using existing freeway infrastructure would make a lot more sense than running light rail (which would have to be elevated on trestles or otherwise elevated to comply with the now-downgraded Natomas flood standards) through open fields.

John said...

The problem with the airport starts at the airport. It is a similar problem with Arco Arena. There's too much money to be made from those great expanses of parking.

If the airport wanted to help people get to the airport without driving, it would finance the effort itself. It has the means to do it: Charge parkers a premium and use the cash for transit.

The advantage of fixed rail is that it is permanent. Land-use can be fixed around it. Bus Rapid Transit that includes dedicated lanes and transit stations would have the advantage of less cost. But simple express bus service lacks the sort permanence that allows others to depend on it.

My ideal world would have bus rapid transit today using the eventual route of light rail. As light rail catches up, the BRT would be reduced or redirected.