Cost called obstacle to Tahoe rail |

Cost called obstacle to Tahoe rail

Patrick McCartney

PLACERVILLE – Building an electric rail line from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe would provide a reliable alternative to U.S. Highway 50, a rail advocate said this week at a forum.

Yet, a light rail could be extended to Lake Tahoe only if public attitudes about subsidizing rail transit change, said others at the discussion Monday in Placerville sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

“During the winter months, South Lake Tahoe has been virtually isolated during storms,” said Al Bulf, an employee of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District who has long advocated an El Dorado County rail project. “With the route I’ve picked, South Lake Tahoe would never be isolated again.”

While El Dorado and Sacramento transportation planners are hammering out plans to extend a light-rail system from Sacramento to Shingle Springs, advocates like Bulf dream of a system that would one day connect Sacramento to Carson City.

His enthusiastic plan for a rail line that would follow the ridgelines above the American River canyon is not on the drawing table of today’s planners. However, a joint powers authority representing Sacramento and El Dorado counties and the city of Folsom have purchased 53 miles of retired Southern Pacific right of way from Sacramento to Placerville.

Plans have already been approved for the first five miles of commuter rail, and the city of Folsom is hoping to extend the line another five miles to Folsom as early as 2001.

The joint powers authority is also studying extending the rail to Shingle Springs, but no political body is yet looking even as far as Placerville.

The reason, said Art Marinaccio, a real estate agent who has lobbied for the commuter line, is that ridership estimates do not justify the investment a new rail line would require.

“The farther up the line goes, the greater the per-trip subsidy would have to be,” Marinaccio said. He added that shifting funds to rail projects would take money away from needed highway improvements, pointing to an estimated $250 million shortfall in El Dorado County’s transportation needs over the next 20 years.

Marinaccio called Bulf’s vision of a rail connection to Lake Tahoe as “too far removed from reality.”

Others on the panel were more sympathetic to Bulf’s quest.

Carolyn Ewing, a Sacramento consultant and former deputy director for the California Department of Transportation, said state transit officials must diversify the type of transportation projects they support.

“Not one person (in Caltrans) complained about the $3,000 an inch it cost to build 15 miles of freeway in Los Angeles,” Ewing said. “We do not have a clear public policy that it’s OK to subsidize rail. Caltrans needs to be more multimodal than they have been traditionally.”

Art Smith, the executive director of the Folsom-Rancho Cordova-El Dorado Transportation Management Association, said transit officials were skeptical just a few years ago about extending rail to El Dorado County.

“But, the rail will be extended to Folsom by the turn of the century,” Smith said. “It takes people with dreams to make the impossible happen.”

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