Sacramento's Downtown Intermodal Depot: The Hub Goes on the Rim?

By Jock O'Connell>


This article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on March 24, 2004.

The Sacramento City Council on Tuesday embraced a design scheme for a proposed Sacramento Intermodal Transportation Facility that will involve moving downtown's historic but decrepit railroad passenger station about a block north of its current I street location and turning it into the centerpiece of what city officials are billing as a "state of the art" transit center that will serve as a "regional hub, transfer point and portal."

It is an audacious undertaking, one that Councilman Steve Cohn told his colleagues represents the "most important public infrastructure project of our generation."

Expected to cost upwards of $160 million, the facility is intended to accommodate Amtrak's long-distance trains, the state-supported Capitol rail service to the Bay Area, Sacramento's light-rail system, Greyhound coaches, Regional Transit buses and the state's high-speed rail service to Southern California - "all within walking distance of downtown offices," as the project's promoters are quick to emphasize.

That the closest of those downtown offices happen to be occupied by the public officials who are among the project's most enthusiastic supporters is probably just a mere coincidence.

But what is truly remarkable about this project - apart from the maddeningly unresolved question of its financing - is that no one at City Hall seems to think it at all odd that the hub of the region's transit system should be located on the region's demographic rim.

As generally defined, the Sacramento region encompasses the counties of Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado, Yuba, Sutter and Yolo. Those are, after all, the counties which comprise the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the organization at least nominally responsible for regional transportation planning.

SACOG has produced maps illustrating what the region might look like in 2050. Under the most probable growth scenarios, those maps show the stain of urbanity spreading relentlessly eastward along Interstate 80 and Route 50 - and steadily away from downtown Sacramento.

SACOG estimates the six-county region will have 928,000 more residents in 2025 than in 2000. Although just over half of that growth is expected to occur within Sacramento County, outlying communities like Rancho Cordova, Laguna, Cosumnes and Vineyard will see the most spectacular growth.

By contrast, downtown Sacramento, Land Park and East Sacramento will only see a total of 34,000 new residents by 2025. That is about the same margin by which the Placer County towns of Roseville and Rocklin are each anticipated to grow. And it is far less than the 61,000 more people expected to reside in the town of Lincoln by 2025.

Institutions serving the region's sprawling population have been aggressively shifting the focus of their operations eastward. Kaiser Permanente has just announced plans to spend nearly a half billion dollars by 2012 to more than double its medical facilities in Roseville.

"South Placer is our fastest-growing market in Northern California," Kaiser spokeswoman Kathleen McKenna recently told the Sacramento Business Journal. Once completed, McKenna said, the Roseville facility "will be the focal point for our health-care delivery system in the Sacramento region."

And Kaiser is not alone. Both Sutter Health and Catholic Healthcare West (the proprietor of Mercy Hospital) are expected to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the next few years to expand their facilities in Roseville and Carmichael.

An out-of-town visitor might wonder why an expensive new transportation center isn't being built nearer to where most of the region's people will be living and working. Even the California High-Speed Train Authority's plans envision a station on Power Inn Road.

Remarkably, though, there's been no indication that regional demographic trends are topmost in the minds of the project's supporters. Instead, these backers have preferred to spin some highly romanticized - not to mention sanitized - images of train travel to justify the undertaking.

Close your eyes as the project is described and you might easily see gentlemen sporting fedoras accompanying women in white gloves and elegant chapeaux, while crisply uniformed porters push carts laden with steamer trucks and leather valises.

Alas, it is a scene decidedly at odds with the reality of contemporary travel. The notion of a transit hub as a pristine civic oasis would certainty draw hoots of derision from anyone who has endured the positively inelegant ambience of the Greyhound terminal on L Street or the light-rail stop adjacent to the St. Rosa of Lima Park on K Street.

On the other (ironic) hand, the ample array of transit options City Hall proposes to offer the thousands of travelers arriving by train would certainly appeal to the millions of visitors landing at Sacramento International Airport.

As one might expect, serving the actual transportation needs of the Sacramento region is not the primary motivation behind the intermodal facility. Instead, as the City of Sacramento's Web site concedes, it "is intended to be a catalyst for the newly developing rail yards to the north."

Although the rail yard's designated developer, Millennia Associates, has yet to submit a formal proposal, it's generally understood that the development would include 4,500 housing units along with offices, shops and restaurants.

Beyond that - and Millennia's remarkable penchant for procrastination - extraordinarily little is clear. The putative rail yard developer has been loath to break ground, perhaps because Millennia is itself unsure whether it wants to build a functioning inner-city neighborhood or a theme park in which residents will be offered a Disneyfied version of an urban living experience.

Unfortunately, the competition for shrinking federal and state transportation dollars has moved "beyond ugly," to use the felicitous expression of a recent Bee editorial. And that is apt to have profound consequences.

Early last month, The Bee's Terri Hardy and Tony Bizjak reported that city officials acknowledge it could take several years before construction could begin on the depot. The reporters were then told by Suheil Totah, a Millennia spokesman, that "the intermodal is the anchor of the development. A significant delay beyond \[two years\] would really concern us."

Sure it would. Any appreciable increase in the cost of financing rail yard development might begin to soar by year's end and compel a recalculation of the project's economic fundamentals.

Perhaps at that point, Millennia might be obliged to admit that it was never going to be all that easy to lure affluent renters and middle-class families to a tract bounded by warehouses on the north, heavy rail traffic on the south, Alkali Flats on the east and an elevated section of freeway casting its noisy and noxious shadow. Someone's civic dreams may have to be scaled back. But that may not be an altogether undesirable outcome if the result is a greater focus on addressing the city's affordable housing needs and less on the achievement of iconic, "world-class" aspirations.

So what, then, is to become of the old depot if economic considerations lead to a divorce between the project and the rail yard development? Several uses could no doubt be found for a cavernous but architecturally unappealing edifice. The problem is that the structure's historic status means that any salvage plans remain consistent with the historical uses of railroad depots.

But perhaps therein lies - in the shape of a modest proposal - a solution to more than one recent policymaking embarrassment at City Hall.

Memo to Heather, Joe and Gavin: Sixteen NBA championships were won by a franchise that played upstairs from Boston's North Station. Add a parquet floor and, well, the rest could be history.

________________________________________ About the Writer

A long-time Forum correspondent, Jock O'Connell is a Sacramento-based international business consultant. His email is