One hundred and fifty years ago, Sacramento launched the transcontinental railroad. Today, city leaders are seeking to become rail pioneers once again.
They're tapping the transit-friendly Obama administration for hundreds of millions of dollars to help them build what they say will be a seamless, 21st-century regional rail network, on which passengers will move easily from streetcars to light-rail trains to Amtrak and – someday – to high-speed rail.
President Barack Obama's point men on rail, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff, came to town Monday to present Sacramento with $135 million to expand light rail to Cosumnes River College, marking the culmination of a half-dozen years of local lobbying.
It's the largest competitive federal grant ever awarded to Sacramento for a transit project, local officials said.
LaHood expressed the administration's willingness to back Sacramento with even more transit money, calling the region a leader in reintroducing rail transit as a complement to freeways.
"There are always going to be highways, people are always going to have automobiles, but what the people want are alternatives," LaHood said during a ceremony at the Cosumnes River College campus next to the site for a planned transit station.
"You will become a model for what other communities can do when you have the right vision."
The latest step in this quest is bringing Regional Transit's Blue Line to Cosumnes River College. The federal government's New Starts transit fund is footing half the bill for extending the line 4.3 miles south of its current terminus at Meadowview Road.
The project includes two bridges – one over Morrison and Union House creeks, and one over Cosumnes River Boulevard – as well as a multi-story campus parking structure.
Work has already begun on the two bridges in anticipation of the federal funds. Major project work will begin this spring, RT officials said.
The trains are scheduled to start rolling in September 2015, three years later than originally planned.
"It's been a challenge to get to this point," said Mike Wiley, the general manager of Regional Transit.
On a per-mile basis, the extension was expensive.
But local officials, among them Sacramento City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell, persuaded the federal government it was worthwhile on several fronts, citing the 1,700 jobs the project is expected to produce, as well as the opportunity for business and residential growth near south Sacramento stations, and the belief it will help lighten some of the region's worst commute traffic, on Highway 99 between Elk Grove and downtown.
The extension will directly connect Cosumnes River College with Sacramento City College – a rail link Los Rios Community College District officials say will be useful for carless students who take classes at both campuses.
Funding for transit and highway projects has been hard to get since the recession, transportation officials said, and future federal funding remains uncertain as Democrats and Republicans debate whether public dollars are better spent on roads and highways or transit and high-speed trains.
In recent years, though, Sacramento officials have won a handful of major federal grants. In 2009, the area got $37 million in economic relief aid to modernize the passenger and freight tracks in the downtown railyard, making room for a planned transit center.
Last year, the Obama administration followed up with a $15 million grant to renovate the downtown train depot.
Sacramento Rep. Doris Matsui and local transportation officials attempted to double down on that success Monday, pulling LaHood and Rogoff into a meeting to sell them on the idea of funding up to half of a modern streetcar system in Sacramento and West Sacramento, projected to cost upward of $130 million, and another planned for Rancho Cordova's growing office, business and housing areas.
That funding is still at least several years away.
Matsui said she wants to see the region expand light rail and streetcars, connected to Amtrak, buses and eventually high-speed rail, to create a robust integrated regional transit system, with a railyard transit center as hub.
"We are proving after decades of work that Sacramento is serious about building a fully integrated transit network that will ultimately provide seamless connection through downtown, West Sacramento, south Sacramento, Folsom, the airport and every neighborhood in between," Matsui said.
For now, though – 25 years after light rail was introduced in Sacramento – that network remains spotty.
RT officials last year took a long-delayed first step toward building light rail between downtown and the airport. That line still faces the tough financial and political hurdles of bridging the American River and cutting though Natomas neighborhoods.
RT officials have not yet made a competitive case to the federal government for matching funds.
"We're going to have to go back to local voters to increase local support to (help) build and operate that," RT's Wiley said.
"The feds are not going to give us money to build anything unless we can demonstrate we can easily afford to operate that (line)."
He said the transit agency is looking at November 2014 to go to voters for help on that project.
LaHood took advantage of his Monday visit to California to trumpet the state's work on a high-speed rail system. That project, under fire for its cost, came within one vote of being shelved by the Legislature last year.
LaHood dismissed what he called the "naysayers," saying California remains ahead of the rest of the country in planning for high-speed rail.