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Sacramento's Light Rail: Success in a Small City Special Report by Light Rail Progress
Special Report by Light Rail Progress© Light Rail Progress – August 2000
Sacramento's light rail transit (LRT) system is a model of success for many smaller American cities considering LRT, such as Louisville, Ky and Austin, Tx. Operated by Sacramento's Regional Transit District (RT), the LRT system opened for service on 12 March 1987 with an 18.3-mile line (now expanded to 20.6 miles) linking the city's eastern and northeastern suburbs with downtown Sacramento.
A model of cost containment
In its initial installation, Sacramento's LRT system was also a model of cost-saving efficiencies. it was constructed at a cost of $176 million in in 1987 (including the cost of vehicles and maintenance/storage facilities). in year 2000 dollars, that would amount to about $228 million -- or about $12.4 million per mile. Costs were kept low by minimizing heavy civil works and using lots of single-track sections with passing sidings to enable 2-way train movements. (Gradually the line is being completely double-tracked as ridership volumes and public approval have grown.)
Also helping to keep costs low were the use of slightly over 7 miles of railroad right-of-way (ROW) and the re-allocation of ROW and even partially built structures of an abandoned interstate freeway project (i-80), amounting to about 4.5 miles. Just under 5 miles of the line was built in city streets; that, and a small amount of bridgework and aerial construction, were the most expensive elements of construction in the original system.
Transit ridership nearly doubles
Today, RT's LRT system carries almost 30,000 passengers on a typical weekday. During Fiscal Year 1999, RT light rail vehicles carried 8.5 million passengers (about 30% of the agency's total ridership). [Source: Sacramento RT website 00/02/22]
Put another way: Sacramento's LRT is carrying 30% of the city's transit ridership on 1.4% of transit routes, with less than 1% of the total passenger stops, and about 17% of total transit vehicles.
Annual ridership has steadily increased, on both the bus and light rail systems, from 14 million passengers in 1987 to almost 27 million passengers in FY 1999 -- possibly reflecting a positive impact by LRT on the attractiveness of the entire transit system, with its 418-square-mile service area. Bus weekday ridership reached an average of 66,000 passengers per day in 1999.
Ridership on LRT is ridership is up more than 50% since 1990 alone, and LRT seems to be particularly attractive to somewhat more affluent suburbanites who are traditionally wedded to travel by car. A study of the 1990 census published by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences
reported that light rail ridership in Sacramento's suburbs was 60 to 70 percent higher than on equivalent bus service.
The LRT system was originally projected to serve 26,000 daily riders by this year. However, it actually hit that goal in 1996 -- 4 years ahead of schedule -- according to Mike Wiley, RT's director of customer services. Furthermore, riders during non-commute hours account for 60% of the passengers -- a sign that people aren't just using the light rail for work, but are being attracted to LRT for shopping, recreational, and other types of trips.
Besides attracting higher ridership - especially from automobiles - and helping invigorate the city's entire transit system, LRT has helped lower ongoing operating costs, compared to bus services. As the graph above indicates, Sacramento's LRT (as of 1997) was carrying riders for 38 cents per passenger-mile, compared to 56 cents by bus.
impressive level of service
By reducing operating costs and attracting ever-higher ridership, LRT has enabled the operating agency to improve transit service at affordable cost.
Buses and light rail run 365 days a year. The LRT system operates 36 light rail vehicles, while the bus service runs 136 buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) and 73 diesel buses. Buses operate daily from 5 AM to 11:30 PM, every 15 to 60 minutes, depending on route. Light rail trains operate from 4:30 AM to 1 AM daily, with service every 15 minutes during the day and 30 minutes in the evening.
There are 31 light rail stops or stations, 9 bus and light rail transfer centers, and 10 free park-and-ride lots, in addition to over 3,500 bus stops throughout Sacramento County.
The LRT system currently includes 36 of track. Light rail trains traveled 950,000 miles, providing 45.1 million passenger-miles in Fiscal Year 1999. RT operates light rail trains seven days a week with eight trains running at 15-minute intervals during the day, and four trains running at 30-minute intervals during the evening and early weekend mornings. RT operates four-car trains during the peak periods and two-car trains during the off-peak hours. Single-car trains provide late evening and Sunday service.
The Siemens Duewag U2A vehicles currently used are 79' 6" long and 8' 9" wide, with 60 seats. Normal, comfortable loading will accommodate an additional 65 standing passengers, although higher numbers could be carried. The cars have a maximum speed of 55 mph. With the end-to-end running time on the light rail system at 55 minutes, the average schedule speed (with station stops) is 22.5 mph.
Even with surface operation, interface with other traffic has been smooth. Most private right-of-way, including all single-track sections, includes three-aspect (red, yellow, green) automatic signaling. Light rail operators use "line of sight" when operating on city streets and in low speed double track sections. That "low-tech" method of train control (as opposed to automoatic train signals) has helped keep capital costs affordable. Most grade crossings are protected by standard railroad crossing gates.
RT uses a proof-of-payment fare structure throughout the system, meaning that passengers buy their tickets at self-service machines (or elsewhere), and must produce their ticket if asked to do so. Fare inspection officers conduct random train and station checks to verify fare payment. Passengers found without proof of fare payment are issued a citation, which carries a fine between $56 and $250. Light rail generated $6.3 million in fares, and operating costs totaled approximately $17 million in FY 1999.
All 31 stations, except the 12th & I inbound station, have Senior/Disabled platforms accessed by ramps or lifts. Thirteen stations offer bus transfer services and ten stations have free park-and-ride lots with 4,020 parking spaces. Each station is equipped with at least one fare vending machine/ticket validator and one bill change machine. All stations have telephones and most have lighted shelters.
Success leads to expansion
Air-quality issues have also convinced Sacramento decisionmakers to expand the light-rail system while slowing slightly the growth of highways. A long-term regional transportation plan allocates 14% of $4.4 billion in proposed transportation system capital costs to light rail, though officials acknowledge that only 1% of daily trips will be by transit and 92% will be by car by 2022. Apparently, it's recognized that LRT has a substantial impact on peak-period trips into Sacramento's core area -- a small proportion of the total, but a heavy contributor to central-city smog problems. Also, automobile trip numbers are bloated by the vast quantity of short or "wasteful" trips (e.g., to convenience stores, gas stations, car washes, etc.) which transit users don't tend to make (especially if concentrations of activity centers, like retail outlets and malls, are located adjacent to some transit stations).
Because of its success, major extensions to Sacramento's LRT system are under way. These include a 10.2-mile extension to the suburban community of Folsom, a 0.7-mile extension to the city's downtown Amtrak station, and a 6.3-mile South Line extension to Meadowview Road. All three extensions are scheduled to begin operating by September 2003.