SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- One hundred and fifty years ago, Sacramento launched the transcontinental railroad. Today, city leaders are seeking to become rail pioneers once again.
They're tapping the transit-friendly Obama administration for hundreds of millions of dollars to help them build what they say will be a seamless, 21st-century regional rail network, on which passengers will move easily from streetcars to light-rail trains to Amtrak and someday to high-speed rail.
President Barack Obama's point men on rail, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff, came to town Monday to present Sacramento with $135 million to expand light rail to Cosumnes River College, marking the culmination of a half-dozen years of local lobbying.
It's the largest competitive federal grant ever awarded to Sacramento for a transit project, local officials said.
LaHood expressed the administration's willingness to back Sacramento with even more transit money, calling the region a leader in reintroducing rail transit as a complement to freeways.
"There are always going to be highways, people are always going to have automobiles, but what the people want are alternatives," LaHood said during a ceremony at the Cosumnes River College campus next to the site for a planned transit station.
"You will become a model for what other communities can do when you have the right vision."
The latest step in this quest is bringing Regional Transit's Blue Line to Cosumnes River College. The federal government's New Starts transit fund is footing half the bill for extending the line 4.3 miles south of its current terminus at Meadowview Road.
The project includes two bridges one over Morrison and Union House creeks, and one over Cosumnes River Boulevard as well as a multi-story campus parking structure.
Work has already begun on the two bridges in anticipation of the federal funds. Major project work will begin this spring, RT officials said.
The trains are scheduled to start rolling in September 2015, three years later than originally planned.
"It's been a challenge to get to this point," said Mike Wiley, the general manager of Regional Transit.
On a per-mile basis, the extension was expensive.
But local officials, among them Sacramento City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell, persuaded the federal government it was worthwhile on several fronts, citing the 1,700 jobs the project is expected to produce, as well as the opportunity for business and residential growth near south Sacramento stations, and the belief it will help lighten some of the region's worst commute traffic, on Highway 99 between Elk Grove and downtown.
The extension will directly connect Cosumnes River College with Sacramento City College a rail link Los Rios Community College District officials say will be useful for carless students who take classes at both campuses.
Funding for transit and highway projects has been hard to get since the recession, transportation officials said, and future federal funding remains uncertain as Democrats and Republicans debate whether public dollars are better spent on roads and highways or transit and high-speed trains.
In recent years, though, Sacramento officials have won a handful of major federal grants. In 2009, the area got $37 million in economic relief aid to modernize the passenger and freight tracks in the downtown railyard, making room for a planned transit center.