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Preservation Commission Approves Depot Plan

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On Thursday night, Sacramento’s Preservation Commission held a special meeting to review plans to expand and refurbish Sacramento’s historic passenger depot. The depot’s environmental impact report includes two alternatives: a "move the depot" option that would involve rolling the historic building 400 feet north to meet the new track alignment, or a "don’t move the depot" option that would build an expanded station between the current depot and the new track alignment. The commission was asked to provide their recommendation to City Council as to whether the city should move the station or not.

Union Pacific’s railroad tracks adjacent to the depot currently form a sharp S-curve that limits the length of passenger trains that can safely pull into the station, and limits the maximum speed of freight trains passing through the city. The tracks’ current location also puts freight trains very close to waiting passengers, with no barriers or other protection between trains and people. Union Pacific wants to straighten out the S-curve into a single tangent. By smoothing the curve, freight trains could travel more quickly, eliminating a traffic bottleneck. By providing separate freight tracks and limiting access to them with a fence, passengers waiting on the platform would be safer.

The issue of the historic depot has been a contentious point since the original plans to relocate the tracks appeared in the late 1990s. Preservation advocates are concerned that if the depot is no longer adjacent to the tracks, it will be replaced by a new building and the historic building will fall into disuse or disrepair. The city’s objective is to maintain the depot as an "intermodal" station, a station where passengers can move between many different transportation modes: car, city bus, intercity bus, light rail, commuter train or long-distance train. Sacramento’s passenger station is one of the busiest in the country, serving over a million passengers a year, and rail transit providers expect dramatic increases in rail passenger traffic in the coming decades, so either plan must allow for growth.

In 2007, the Sacramento City Council selected a radical plan: rather than abandon the depot, the existing depot would be moved to a new site adjacent to the tracks on giant rollers. Once relocated, the new depot would be put back into service. Over the past two years, staff have examined the plan more closely but had concerns about the feasibility of moving the depot. In order to cover all of their options, the report on the depot plan included two alternatives: a "move the depot" plan and a "don’t move the depot" plan.

Both plans involved three phases. In Phase 1, the tracks are to be relocated and a surface path built from the depot to the new location. In Phase 2, temporary landscaping improvements would be added, along with an underground concourse allowing access to passenger train platforms without crossing freight tracks. This phase would also include some cosmetic and seismic retrofit to the depot. Phase 3 is split into two options.

In the "move the depot" option, two city blocks would be freed up for residential development, and a triangular structure would be built behind the depot to provide shelter to embarking passengers. In the "don’t move the depot" option, the historic building would still serve as an entrance but a large structure similar to an airport concourse would be built behind the depot. Access to the tracks would be via this elevated concourse or via the underground tunnel completed in Phase 2. This structure would also contain a Greyhound bus terminal and drop-off points for local buses, and be adjacent to a relocated RT Metro light rail line. The bus functions would also be present in a "move the depot" scenario, but located at different points around the depot. Both plans include provision to make space for future high-speed rail lines, and both plans include space on the existing lots for new development. Another feature of both plans is a secondary tunnel at the western edge of the tracks, where "red cap" operated vehicles can transport limited-mobility and disabled passengers to the tracks.

Sacramento’s city staff support the "don’t move the depot" alternative, on the basis that it would be cheaper, provides more space for expansion, and avoids risks to the historic structure associated with relocation. The "move the depot" would provide less space for expansion, and the walk from entrance to tracks would be shorter, but the relocation would cost more than would be saved by building a smaller station expansion.

Some members of the public voiced concerns about the "don’t move the depot" alternative. Kay Knepprath of the "Save Our Rail Depot" (SORD) Coalition stated that the city has already agreed to move the depot, and reiterated concerns that if the depot loses its connection with the tracks, it will no longer be used as a passenger station. City attorney Cheryl Patterson addressed the latter issue by mentioning that federal transportation funds will be used to pay for restoration of the station, and those funds require that the building continue to serve a transportation function. In other words, if it stops being a train station, the money must be returned. The operator of the local Yellow Cab franchise asked that, regardless of which option was selected, sufficient parking space for cabs be provided in the plan.

The Preservation Commission voted 5-2 to support staff’s recommendation to select the "don’t move the depot" option. Their recommendation will be passed along to the Sacramento City Council for a final decision on Tuesday, June 2.

A copy of the Preservation Commission agenda, including PDF copies of the environmental documents regarding the proposed track relocation and depot move, can be found here:

http://www.cityofsacramento.org/dsd/meetings/commissions/preservation/2008/PC_Agenda_5-21-09.cfm

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