Sacramento Regional Transit turns 50 this year

March 21, 2023 General, SacRT Blog

We’re sharing the experience from those who were there

For 50 years, the Sacramento Regional Transit District (SacRT) has knitted the capital region together, taking millions of riders where they need to go, from downtown Sacramento to old town Folsom, from Elk Grove to Citrus Heights, and to hundreds of points in between. 

It’s a rich history of service, innovation and perseverance, all of it amid growth booms, major recessions and even a health pandemic. In short, a heck of a ride, and one we’re proud of.  

But how and why did SacRT get its start? And why is it still going strong at the half-century mark when other Sacramento transit services before it came and went?  

Here’s our story: 

‘Take them where they want to go’ 

Fifty years ago, Sacramento was a region on the move, literally. A post World War II population boom had turned the once modest Capital City into a sprawling metropolis with thousands of residents migrating to new suburbs miles from downtown. 

But the area’s transit services were not keeping up. The Sacramento city bus service, called the Sacramento Transit Authority, operated mainly inside city limits, and other bus lines served only limited areas outside the city. 

Sacramento leaders concluded it was time for an integrated “regional” transit service, one robust enough to get people to downtown jobs and nimble enough to connect suburban centers to each other. 

Those early visionaries included Bill Bourne, head of Sacramento city’s transit authority. “I kept saying we need to take people where they want to go, not where we want to take them,” Bourne said. “And do it on a fiscally sound basis.” 

The state legislature approved formation of the new transit agency, to be overseen by representatives from the city and the county, and other local cities as well, should they opt to join. 

On April 1, 1973, the Sacramento Regional Transit District launched with a fleet of buses sporting the official colors of the state of California, blue and gold. 

SacRT’s ‘Love-A-Fare’ 

Bourne, the agency’s first general manager, and his team started with a bang. They created a single new fare for all routes and promoted it as the “25-cent Love-A-Fare.” (Previously, bus companies charged varying fares up to 65 cents, including complicated graduated fares on some routes.) 

“You have to let people know about your product,” Bourne said. “Let them know you are here. It caught on.” Bourne, now 91 years old, has watched SacRT’s evolution over the decades and says he’s proud of the district’s diligence and durability. 

The new regional bus service arrived just in time. 

In October 1973, seven months after SacRT launched, OPEC countries imposed an oil embargo on the United States, plunging the country into a severe gas shortage. Thousands of Sacramentans turned to transit for the first time. To meet demand, SacRT initially borrowed and rented buses from around the state on an urgency basis, then bought 125 new buses of its own.  

That moment helped establish the young transit agency in Sacramento, said transit historian Bob Blymyer, who worked at SacRT for 32 years, starting in 1974. “I remember driving a car with the SacRT logo, and people would wave. Everybody was impressed with what SacRT had done.”  

By 1977, SacRT had more than doubled its original fleet to 223 buses, and employee numbers had jumped from 125 to nearly 500. 

Light rail arrives  

In the 1980s, SacRT took on yet another region-altering task, one that continues today. Although freeways were being widened, the metro area’s roads had become congested, and the region no longer met federal air quality standards. 

SacRT was commissioned to build an electric light rail train system that could ferry more people per hour to downtown jobs. It would be among the first modern intra-urban rail transit systems in the country. Major bus routes would serve as feeder lines to light rail stations. 

The first trains rolled out in March 1987 on a starter line that ran between 13th and R streets downtown and a station at Watt Avenue and Interstate 80.  

Pilka Robinson, an assistant planner at SacRT who later would become the agency’s first female general manager, was part of the initial light rail planning team. 

“We were finding which way we wanted to go as the region grew, and it became a focus on light rail.” she said. “Rail offers a sense of permanence. At 15-minute intervals for trains, it provided a higher level of service. Service was the main goal.” 

Sacramento’s light rail construction was made possible by federal grants, as well as state and local funding. SacRT has had solid federal support over the years. Current champions include Congressmembers Doris Matsui and Ami Bera. 

The agency got a boost as well from local residents in 1998 when Sacramento County voters passed a transportation sales tax for new roads and for improved transit. 

‘Get her a free pass!’ 

The light rail program sent passenger levels to record highs in the 1990s and exemplified SacRT’s continuous push for modern ways to serve. But SacRT’s basic persona did not change, Robinson said. The agency was and is at heart a people-oriented organization with a close relationship with riders. 

“I think all of us felt it,” Robinson said. “It’s a special place to work. We could see we were helping people, the children, the disability community, the seniors.” 

“One rider came to us–she was 100 years old–and asked, ‘Can I get a free pass?’ I said, ‘My god, yes, let’s get her a pass!’” The woman crocheted several small gifts for SacRT staff. “It was so touching,” Robinson said. “I still have them.” 

As SacRT grew, so did its service mantra of inclusivity and equity. The agency provides “lifeline service” to people who have no other mobility options. SacRT buses and trains are equipped for wheelchairs and have access ramps. The agency also operates SacRT GO paratransit services for persons with disabilities and elderly.  

There are many stories of how public transit empowers residents. Sacramentan Russell Rawlings has a personal one. Rawlings, who has cerebral palsy and is in a motorized wheelchair, says SacRT was key to allowing him to escape an emotionally difficult time when he moved to Sacramento 20 years ago as a young man to live alone for the first time. 

Riding SacRT turned out to be surprisingly easy, he said. “My first bus ride, I thought, Oh wow, I can live life! I can meet people and start feeling like a Sacramentan. SacRT gave me access to the world and helped me build a life that I am proud of.”  

Recovering from the Great Recession 

The 1990s and early 2000s were a boom time for SacRT. The agency completed the first phase of its light rail south corridor Blue Line in 2003, and the Gold Line was extended into Folsom in 2005. Voters extended the county’s transportation sales tax in 2004. Representatives of the cities of Folsom, Citrus Heights and Elk Grove joined the SacRT governing board. 

In 2007 and 2008, though, the Great Recession hit. The state of California drastically reduced funds for transit agencies. Other revenues dwindled as well. SacRT was among many government agencies forced to cut service. The agency depleted its financial reserves and had to forgo spending on some basic needs. 

In 2016, with an improving economy and new leadership, the agency made a dramatic comeback from the brink. Led by new General Manager and CEO Henry Li, the re-energized agency launched a multipronged effort to solidify itself financially, to put customers first and to re-establish itself as a leader in the region. 

That included a concerted program to make SacRT trains and buses cleaner, safer and more reliable. Thanks to new security measures, including transit ambassadors on trains and more cameras and a public address system in stations, the agency cut fare evasion from 21 percent to 1.5 percent. 

SacRT also opened a 24/7 Security Operations Center, where security employees monitor over 1,000 live-feed cameras on the bus and light rail system in real-time. 

At the same time, the agency offered cutting-edge services to meet current needs of riders, including the largest and most extensive app-based microtransit service in the country, called SmaRT Ride. 

Perhaps even more notably, it created the first unrestricted free-ride program for all youth in the country, called RydeFreeRT. School officials’ credit RydeFreeRT with reducing truancy by making it easier for working families to juggle daily schedules. 

The agency also created a Social Equity Program that includes a full-time social worker, Rose Arteaga, who assists people on and around the SacRT system who are experiencing homelessness. 

The can-do agency 

The innovative initiatives caught national attention. In 2019, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) chose Henry Li as Outstanding Public Transportation Manager of the Year. Then, in 2021, APTA honored SacRT as Outstanding Public Transportation System of the Year. 

SacRT also was among only four transit agencies nationally out of 7,000 to win the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Gold Standard Award for safety preparedness. It did so in both 2019 and 2022, a unique achievement. 

Li credits SacRT employees, as well as his leadership team, the agency’s governing board, riders and their advocates, and local leaders for participating in the turnaround. 

“We achieved amazing operational and financial successes thanks to our partnerships and because our employees are dedicated to their jobs and committed to excellence,” Li said. 

The agency’s recent resurgence helped persuade the cities of Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Folsom to agree to fully annex into SacRT, strengthening the agency as a regional entity. 

“The past seven years have seen many positive changes at SacRT,” said current SacRT board chair Patrick Kennedy, a Sacramento County board supervisor. “We have focused on providing clean, safe and convenient transit options for our riders while righting our financial ship. I thank everyone that contributed to the success of SacRT. It has been a journey of challenges, but we made it through together as a company and community.” 

Don Nottoli, a former Sacramento County supervisor, served on the SacRT board for nearly 25 years, and is pleased as well with the recent progress and the energy Li and his team have brought. “SacRT has been innovative, but also realized it has its core mission,” Nottoli said. 

Meanwhile, starting in 2020, SacRT and Yolo County partnered on the Causeway Connection bus service that operates between the cities of Davis and downtown Sacramento. And SacRT is laying plans with West Sacramento and the City of Sacramento for a streetcar across the Tower Bridge. 

Li called the series of regional agreements important heading forward. “We are stronger united,” he said. “The agreements lead to better route integration and regional planning, and we will realize efficiencies through economies of scale.” 

Mark Lonergan, a now-retired 40-year SacRT veteran and former chief operating officer, suggested the agency has persevered for a half-century, because it manages to consistently punch above its weight. 

“SacRT has found ways to move forward with very little in the way of resources,” Lonergan said. “We have this way of doing things that seem to be beyond our apparent capabilities. I think it’s a real strength.” 

What comes next? 

SacRT this year is launching the biggest modernization project ever of its light rail system, purchasing up to 76 new low-floor light rail cars, allowing passengers to step directly onto train cars without walking up stairs. The project includes remodeling light rail station platforms to accommodate the height requirements of the new low-floor cars. Operating start date is set for summer 2024. 

The agency also will build a passing track in Folsom to allow for 15-minute service at Folsom area stations. Trains currently serve those stations every half hour. 

The agency also is laying plans to introduce its first “Bus Rapid Transit” lines on a handful of major corridors, where buses will be able to bypass traffic in dedicated rights of way and benefit from signal priority at intersections.  

“The past seven years have seen many positive changes at SacRT,” said current SacRT board chair Patrick Kennedy, a Sacramento County board supervisor. “We have focused on providing clean, safe and convenient transit options for our riders while righting our financial ship. I thank everyone that contributed to the success of SacRT. It has been a journey of challenges, but we made it through together as a company and community.” 

And the agency will transition in the coming years to all zero emission vehicles in its role as a regional leader in the fight against climate change. 

Li, who has led SacRT since 2016, is optimistic about the next 50 years. The mission, he said, remains unchanged. 

“SacRT has a bright future,” he said. “We will be strategic, innovative, integrated and flexible. We’ll grow our public transit, and we’ll be a world-class system focused on building equity, promoting social justice and fighting climate change.”