The Dark Side of Sacramento’s Light Rail

By Ashley Robinson

The intersection at P and 15th was a parking lot for what felt like 20 minutes a few weeks ago.

As I sat in my car, watching FIVE green lights come and go with no forward movement and waiting for those damn Light Rail guards to go up, I could feel our carbon footprints expanding like a toy sponge snake. I thought to myself, “Is waiting for Light Rail really worth it? Is this metro train, which consists all of two lines, is it really making a dent on the ease of city transportation?”

So, I thought, I’ll give riding the LT another try.

For the past year and a half, I would sometimes walk to my job downtown, but usually I ended up driving as I am almost always running late. Or I would end up driving because it was too hot, too cold, too rainy or too long a walk in my office attire. My fiancé’s recent job change booted both of us out of our parking garage … making us drifters in a land of limited parking at the mercy of meter maids in bike helmets.

We tried to get a spot in the City of Sacramento parking garage at L and 10th Street, but there a waiting list … I couldn’t believe it. There are spots a plenty in there every day! And obtaining a monthly parking pass in a City garage is $185 ($138. 75 if you “carpool”). We’ve been on this government-run waiting list for over three months (I won’t delve into the imaginable waiting lists for other government-run possibilities). And it’s $18 a day for non-pass parking – that’s $90 a week!

After acquiring two parking tickets (both of which were issued at the end of days moving, checking and filling the meter every two hours), I decided I couldn’t afford the hassle to drive every day … and I don’t have a bike.

Which leaves Light Rail, but let’s face it; Sacramento’s Light Rail has a dark side.

Compare and Contrast

I would never compare Sacramento to New York City, but after relying on MTA for almost a year in Manhattan, I moved back to Sacramento a tad spoiled in the public transportation department. My subway station in NYC was right on my street corner. Trains screamed into the station less than 4.3 minutes apart on weekday mornings. The subway could take me anywhere in NYC with only a short walk attached. The trains were clearly marked. And everyone rode them.

In Sacramento, the closest station to me is five long blocks away, comparatively lucky to the typical Midtownie. For anyone living north of Capital Ave, it’s sooo not worth the walk. Trains seem to waddle into the station every 15 minutes, IF they are running on time. The trains are not clearly marked nor logically named. Apparently the “Meadowview” (where is that?!) line is the blue line, but I want the yellow line, headed toward Folsom, which to the inexperienced rider looks exactly the same as the blue line! And the schedule is a ridiculous glob of numbers and colons with missing information that make my eyes cross.

Now, you could say, Sacramento doesn’t require a metro system like New York’s. And yes, you would be correct. It would be ridiculous to think that. But is it unimaginable to ask for a user-friendly train that can be understood and trusted at first blush?

Making the Commute-ment

Regional Transit has made no obvious effort to make riding the Light Rail a valuable opportunity to Midtowners, Land Parkers, East Sacramentans or even those living out in the ‘burbs. If you live in Midtown, you are now required to pay $2.50 each way to ride the train – for a mile-long ride?! Yea. Right.

The reasonable one-dollar fare was dropped because Light Rail has an operational budget gap they are trying to close … what a good idea! Encourage fewer people to ride the trains by abandoning reasonable fares. It would cost me $5 a day for two miles of track, totaling up to $100 a month – and no discount given for pre-purchasing tickets.

In New York, which perpetually has an operational budget shortfall, they at least offer discounts to riders with an $89 pre-purchased unlimited monthly pass for all over the city and boroughs, saving riders 44% off the estimated $133.50 it would cost for round trip each day. It would come out to $1.50 a ride twice a day for 30 days. In Sacramento, it would cost $1.70 a ride twice a day for 30 days … ok, so it comes out to a $6 difference with New York being the cheaper monthly ride … perceived purchase versus perceived cost.

Perhaps Regional Transit does not offer these “deals” because those that ride the Light Rail are long-term riders, unlike the waves of New York tourists who venture to ride an American icon.

And as for Sacramento Midtowners, they are not the core ridership, making the $1 ticket drop insignificant.

I won’t be unfair. Regional Transit does provide other discount opportunities. I recently asked a co-worker who takes the Light Rail in from Roseville everyday if she thought the price she pays for a monthly pass justified the mileage she rides. She snorted, “No way would I take Light Rail if I had to pay for it!”Apparently you can also pay $30 for a one-unit yoga class, or art class, or any class at any of the Los Rios colleges (for a whole quarter – not just a month!) and then just pay about $5 for a transit sticker, and that’s it! You can show your student ID card to the Transit police when they walk through the train once in a blue moon.

Oh yea, and if you are state employee, you can get vouchers.

Waiting in the Dark

I asked a friend who lives out in Lincoln why she chooses to NOT take Light Rail as a way to commute. She and her fiancé budget $500 A MONTH for gas, to take the one-hour drive in and out of the city.

“With the hours we work, we would likely ride after dark and Light Rail is hands down, not safe after dark,” she said. “Plus in the middle of the day, sometimes we have to run errands, or leave early, and Light Rail simply does not provide the convenience of having access to your own car. Parking is affordable [she works in the Capitol and can pay cheaply for a parking spot], and we carpool, so the pros of driving really outweigh the cons.”

And then she added, “Mostly cause it’s not safe after dark, though.”

My other friend who does take the train out to Roseville said there are a few stops where she holds her bag a little closer to her chest and keeps her eyes down.

The other night I sat at a somewhat deserted Light Rail station in front of my office around 7pm. I waited for about 15 minutes in the dark. Normally, I would have said, “screw it” and walked home, but I had a monster blister and only heels to totter the mile-long walk home.

Sometimes a kid or homeless guy would come by, sometimes they would say hello, sometimes they would ask for my phone number or money, but ALWAYS, I felt uncomfortable. With one dimly lit street lamp buzzing nearby, trash floating in the breeze, and no one around, I knew that I could not allow myself to do that again.

I had felt safer in a subway station at 2am in Spanish Harlem than I felt waiting at Archives Plaza on a weeknight.

The Point

Everyone’s experience with Light Rail is different, and Regional Transit could refute some of my facts. I welcome them to correct me, as I would love to be a fan and avid rider of the city’s metro system. I like riding trains, I think they are an environmental, economical and dare I say, a fun way to commute.

But if Regional Transit and the City hope to encourage riders of the young professional crowd to help off-set their budget gap, I would recommend they make a more attractive offer by providing discounts on monthly passes, easy-to-interpret schedules, better-marked trains and increased security both on and off the trains.

With parking in Sacramento a comedy of errors, Midtownies, East Sacramentans and Land Parkers could find a real friend in the Light Rail if only they reciprocated.

It goes both ways for a friendship to work.

LINK: http://www.sacrt.com/ (Sacramento’s Light Rail website)

EDITOR’S NOTE: What do you think? Have you had similar experiences? If you could wave a magic wand, how would you improve Light Rail? Where would you add station spots? Share your feedback and experiences (anonymously if you wish) by submitting comments to girlsonthegrid AT gmail DOT com.

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