This is the second post in my series "Profiles in Transit." This series looks at transit systems around the country that I've ridden and reflects on them.
As with my first post in this series, I was able to visit Sacramento while attending the Railvolution Conference in San Francisco a few weeks ago. I mainly went to Sacramento to ride their light rail system, but I did take time to visit some other things in the city. If you ever find yourself in the River City, make sure to visit the California State Railroad Museum. It's very well done.
Sacramento is a medium-sized city, and while I was there for only a few hours, it looks like it could use some work. Old Sacramento was nice, with frontier-style buildings along the river acting as a tourist attraction. After going through a pedestrian tunnel under a freeway, I found myself on the edge of a large shopping mall. This retail center has colonized several city blocks (with bridges over streets and such). On the edges, it turns a blank wall to the surrounding streets and buildings. I was very unimpressed.
Soon I arrived at a light rail stop, and hopped on. The Sacramento RT (Regional Transit) operates 37 miles of light rail on two lines. There are 45 stations in the system, which radiates out from downtown Sacramento to the Northeast, East, and South. The first segment of the system opened in 1987. With close to 50,000 average daily boardings, the Sacramento RT is the 10th busiest light rail system in the United States.
The high ridership is especially noteworthy because in my opinion, the Sacramento Light Rail was done on the cheap. That's not a bad thing. It demonstrates that we can get more bang for our buck.
Anyway, I say that it seems to have been done on the cheap for a few reasons. First off, at least downtown, the LRVs do not get their own lane. They travel in the left lane of traffic, in a similar configuration to the Portland Streetcar. This is one of the corners they probably shouldn't have cut. But some more innocuous cost reductions can be seen at stations. At one station, 12th& I, the northbound track is in its own lane, and passengers board from the eastern sidewalk. But southbound trains are in the left lane of traffic. Passengers board from the northbound trackway. I assume that RT has some kind of hold out rule to keep northbound trains out of the station while southbound trains are boarding.
A similar issue I faced, occurred when I was on my way back to the Amtrak Station. When I got off the LRT at 7th & K, I exited directly into the middle of an intersection. Sacramento RT runs 4 car trains, and these trains are longer than the downtown blocks, so when I exited the last car, I was standing in front of a row of cars (they were held by a traffic signal). It was just a little unnerving, but I suppose that it's the only way to increase capacity. One of the things I'd heard about Portland was that their LRT can't run trains longer than 2 cars because of the short blocks. But if Trimet follows RT's example, they could still board passengers while blocking cross traffic.
Another cost-saving measure is that parts of the LRT were built on already-constructed but canceled freeway bridges and abutments. That just seems practical. Plus, what's a better way to heal a city scarred by freeways than to replace the freeways with transit.
8th & O,
7th & Capitol,
8th & Capitol,
7th & K,
Thoughts on the Sacramento LRT?