Lined with grazing fields, industrial businesses and pockets of housing, Jackson Highway doesn’t have many traffic jams. But snarls could worsen in coming years as developers expect to start work on four communities that will add 30,000 homes and at least as many cars along a stretch of the highway.
Already facing criticism for supporting residential projects on the urban fringe, Sacramento County is working on a proposal to add bus service to the area, in hopes of reducing traffic and auto emissions. The county plans to tax residents to fund the service, which would be provided by contract through Sacramento Regional Transit.
The plan, drawn up by the county, developers and RT officials, would add four routes between Watt Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard on Jackson Highway. Developers expect to start building four master-planned communities as soon as 2017 along that seven-mile stretch: Jackson Township, Mather South, Newbridge and West Jackson.
Three of the new bus routes would receive about 2,000 riders each day, according to a consultant’s study. That would place them among the top 10 routes for ridership, based on RT’s latest figures.
“This is a very viable system,” said Dean Blank, a principal civil engineer for the county.
RT General Manager Mike Wiley agrees that the demand will be there.
“The question is how do we finance it?” he asked.
Like most transit systems, RT is heavily subsidized, with 25 percent of its operating costs paid by fares and the rest from government grants, he said. The consultant’s estimate placed the cost of the four new county routes at $9 million a year. As envisioned in the plan, riders could catch the buses every 15 minutes and ride them through the communities and to Rancho Cordova employment centers and nearby light-rail stations.
Wiley and Blank expect service in the Jackson Highway area to be funded by property owners, much as homeowners in three new Rancho Cordova subdivisions subsidize a shuttle service called the CordoVan. A levy is placed on property to fund the van and other transit in the area, and Rancho Cordova contracts with RT to provide the service. CordoVan charges a nominal rider fee as well.
Sacramento County agreed to impose a residential fee for the bus service after approving the massive Sunrise-Douglas development, before it was incorporated into Rancho Cordova. As with the Jackson Highway projects, Sacramento County also faced opposition from environmentalists over Sunrise-Douglas, including a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Council of Sacramento.
ECOS, which often sues the county over development, has raised complaints about the proposals along Jackson Highway. “When the plans came before us, we strongly stated that they needed a comprehensive transportation and transit plan,” said Ron Maertz, chair of the ECOS land-use committee.
“I question whether they would have done this without our pushing,” he said.
Blank presented the county’s transit plan to ECOS late last year. “What we’ve seen so far is going in the right direction,” Maertz said. “We’re still a little concerned about funding.”
Blank said the need to meet California Environmental Quality Act requirements helped drive the proposal, since new projects must show ways to offset pollution and traffic congestion. But the county is also motivated to create a new type of community, one that reduces car use also by offering a variety of services, goods and jobs nearby.
Ridership is not necessarily higher in urban areas than in suburban ones, RT’s Wiley said. Ridership is driven more by the density of development in an area, and the four communities on Jackson Highway will be more compact than suburban housing of years past.
Some of RT’s highest-use routes are in suburban areas, such as Route 1, traveling from the Watt Avenue light-rail station to the Sunrise Mall transit center.
Mark Thomas, a Rancho Cordova senior engineer, said bus riders are generally of two types: Those who have no other means of transportation and those who do. The CordoVan attracts about 160 riders each day in communities made up of people who have a choice, and he counts himself among those riders.
“It’s 25 minutes of relaxation I get twice a day,” he said. “It’s great.”