Rail from Auburn to Dixon?

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Expanded train service from Auburn to Dixon is being studied. November 6, 2002

A commuter rail line between Auburn and Dixon, once considered a dead issue in the Sacramento region, is alive and kicking again among area leaders who say trains can be running in as early as three years.

Hoping to provide an alternative for frustrated Interstate 80 motorists, transportation officials from Placer to Solano counties are moving aggressively on a plan that might have trains rolling down the I-80 corridor every half-hour during peak commute hours.

"This project has a level of support and excitement about it that I've rarely seen," said Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, who chairs a panel studying the feasibility of a new line. "If we put this service out tomorrow, I'm convinced it would be an instant hit."

Part of the lure for local officials is that, unlike future light-rail lines planned for the I-80 corridor, the infrastructure for commuter rail is mostly in place, although officials with Union Pacific, which owns the right of way, say there is not enough room on the line for the envisioned traffic.
The new line initially would use existing or soon-to-be-built stations in Dixon, Davis, Sacramento, Roseville, Rocklin and Auburn, with new stations -- possibilities include the University of California, Davis; West Sacramento; and McClellan Park -- being added in the future.
"Our goal is to have service going by the end of 2005," said Celia McAdam, director of the Placer County Transportation Planning Agency. "In transportation terms, that's tomorrow. It is hugely ambitious."
In Sacramento the percentage of those who use light rail is only in single digits yet it represents about 50 percent of the region’s overall transportation budget. Light rail generated $6.3 million in fares in FY 1999, compared to operating costs of $17 million. Its cost $20 to $30 million a mile. For that money per mile you could buy 60 to 90 buses, clean fuel, low air pollution buses, that don’t have any infrastructure, don’t have tracks to run on, have fairly low capital and operating costs, and you can make them go wherever you want them to go. In Sacramento, “light rail is a huge expenditure” which diverts 40 to 50 percent of all available transportation funds into “a very limited system.

McAdam said another advantage is that commuter rail wouldn't have a huge price tag. She said early estimates for a start-up line -- two trains running in each direction during peak commute hours -- have it costing $26 million. Although this is a VERY cheap project, how much will Operational Costs take away from bus operation and freeway maintenance costs? Will a Rapid Bus alternative have less capital costs as well as operational?

By comparison, a light-rail line from Watt Avenue to Roseville would cost about $400 million, and one from Sacramento to Davis would run about $360 million, according to Sacramento Regional Transit projections.

The concept of a commuter rail line has been around for more than a decade, but until now, the idea never gained steam. That's because I-80 traffic was mostly flowing smoothly 10 years ago while at the same time the new Capitol Corridor trains to the Bay Area were struggling with operation problems and few riders.

"The rail that we had then wasn't reliable, it wasn't frequent, and it wasn't convenient," Dickinson said.

But over the last decade, car and truck traffic on I-80 between Roseville and Sacramento has increased by 40 percent, slowing the commute, while the number of passengers hopping on Capitol Corridor trains has climbed as well. The service had more than 1 million riders in the last fiscal year, a 133 percent increase over passenger figures from just four years ago. but that still shows that the increase in travelers on the freeway relative to the increase in train passengers is more than 100 times. 100 times more people started using the freeway compared to those who started using rail over the last decade.  Last month, an additional round trip between Oakland and Sacramento was added to the line, bringing the number of weekday trips between the capital area and the Bay Area to 20.

Still, the new line faces obstacles, the biggest of which will be finding room for more trains on already-crowded tracks.

Freight traffic, Capitol Corridor service and Amtrak's long-distance trains all use the tracks between Auburn and Dixon. Officials from Union Pacific said adding a route with such frequent service would be nearly impossible.

"Because of capacity concerns in that route, we don't think that what they're proposing will work," said UP spokesman Mike Furtney.

McAdam and others said that capacity concerns will be one of the issues addressed in a recently launched study on commuter rail. The $200,000 study also will look at the cost of such a service, future stations, ridership projections and the type of equipment that will be used.

McAdam noted that another track will be built next year along the Yolo Causeway to address bottlenecks in that area, and she said additional tracks likely will have to be laid from the Elvas Tower in east Sacramento to the Roseville railyard to alleviate rail congestion there.

"We're determined to find a way that will work for all of us," she said. "UP is a challenge to work with, but I think we're making progress. There's going to be a lot of discussion and a lot of negotiation."


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