Press Releases

Sacramento grapples with temptations of Proposition 51

By Jim Wasserman
Friday October 11, 2002

SACRAMENTO — These are gifts to die for. 

Start with $100 million to run light rail from downtown to the airport. Add millions more to expand a capital railroad museum, improve a river parkway for bicyclists and deck a freeway to reconnect downtown with a revitalizing waterfront. 

Throw in new school buses for the city’s children and the question becomes: What’s not to like? 

Yet all these attractions are causing a terrific headache for Sacramento’s establishment. Like counterparts across California as the Nov. 5 election approaches, leaders are divided between so easily enhancing the region’s quality of life and the growing storm over the means of doing it: Proposition 51. 

At Sacramento’s Regional Transit District, which aims by 2010 to push light rail 10 miles north to Sacramento International Airport, customer services chief Mike Wiley says, “Passage of 51 gives additional momentum to the project that would support the aggressive schedule we are now on.” 

The $100 million is key, he says, to winning critical federal funding for a $350 million project. 

Yet even as RT remains one of Proposition 51’s earliest backers and biggest fans, the Sacramento region’s own transportation planning agency opposes the initiative. 

“From a transportation point of view, it certainly is attractive,” says Joan Medeiros, deputy director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. “The measure provides a lot of money for transportation projects that are obviously critically needed. On the other hand, a majority of the board members felt this is an irresponsible way of making policy.” 

Such differences illustrate the choices facing officials, and ultimately voters across the state, who will choose between highly desirable regional projects and a political process that state legislators, many newspapers and opponents call shortsighted, an abuse of California’s 1911-era initiative process and even corrupt. 

As Sacramento voters are tempted with a light rail line, the ballot measure also gleams with a “great park” in Orange County, more transit in Los Angeles, improvements to Golden Gate Park and Fort Mason in San Francisco, highway construction in San Diego County and an enhanced San Joaquin River Parkway in Fresno. 

In Sacramento, the city council easily endorsed Proposition 51 for the improvements it will bring to the capital. But The Sacramento Bee’s editorial pages call environmentalists behind the measure “morally bankrupt” and repeatedly dub their measure “California’s most corrupt initiative.” In the aftermath of such blasts, and threats by Senate leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, to ban environmentalist backers from his office, a longtime group of Sacramento rail advocates, Friends of Light Rail, maintains a distance from the proposition, neither endorsing or opposing it. 

Proposition 51, the Traffic Congestion Relief and Safe School Buses Act, aims to steer nearly $900 million yearly from the state budget into specific projects to expand transit, save open space and relieve some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion. The amount represents 30 percent of sales taxes paid on new- and used-car buying in California every year. 

The initiative, proposed by the Planning and Conservation League, a 20,000-member environmental coalition, has drawn fire for big contributions from land developers — many directly benefiting from transit and highway projects in the measure. Last week the PCL reported raising $3.9 million for the campaign so far. 

The PCL defends this so-called “pay to play” practice, citing a 1995 court ruling declaring it legal. 

PCL chiefs, having endured a withering blast of criticism in legislative hearings, maintain it’s the Legislature that’s irresponsible for long neglecting the state’s infrastructure. 

“Doing nothing about these problems is what is irresponsible,” says Eddy Moore, who directs the PCL campaign. 

Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson agrees. 

Dickinson, who represents Sacramento’s fast-growing northern suburbs — where a rail line extension would serve a fast-growing airport trying to expand its passenger base to Modesto, Napa and Sonoma counties — says, “If it was a perfect world, I think that we would do this differently. But we don’t have a perfect world and we do have very great needs.” 

Moore says the PCL included the $100 million to help fund Sacramento’s north light rail line because it is “the best single transportation project to benefit the whole region.” 

Dickinson, a major backer of the new line, helped the PCL coax Sacramento’s leading land developer, AKT Development, to contribute nearly $200,000 last spring to help launch Proposition 51. The firm, which calls itself the region’s leading philanthropist, plans to develop land in the rail line corridor of 44,000 people, which is expected to grow to 106,000 by 2025. 

AKT President Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis says, “We were called and they said, “Look, we’re trying to get funds to put it on the ballot. We’re short. We don’t have time to do extensive fund-raising. This is how much we need and we know you people support good things.” 

She says the firm considered gains for Sacramento from the PCL initiative — the light rail extension, parkway funding, railroad museum and freeway decking — and wrote a check.