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Immense railyards project gets manager

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New Sacramento Railyards Project Manager Fran Lee Halbakken said she became a civil engineer because she loves solving problems.

Halbakken is now tackling challenges with one of the city’s and country’s largest redevelopment projects after starting in her new role June 27. At nearly 240 acres of combined private and city land, the railyards project is so big it will virtually double the size of the central business district.

The key position was created at a critical stage of the massive undertaking. The private portion of the site has a new owner and the projects’ housing plan must be revised in light of the recession. Also, plans for a new regional transit center must be coordinated with efforts to make serious headway on financing an adjacent arena by next spring.

Halbakken got her civil engineering degree at Sacramento State. After college, she went to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and found working in the public sector suited her.

"I always knew I was going to be a public servant," said Halbakken, sitting in her City Hall office. "That was a huge appeal, knowing you could make the world better."

She’s worked for the city for 25 years.

Since 2004, she’d worked as operations manager for the city’s Department of Transportation. In that post, Halbakken oversaw transportation policy development and planning. Key projects included co-managing development of a strategic plan for Sacramento River crossings and managing development of the central city parking plan.

She also played a key role in obtaining $225 million in local, state and federal funding for railyards infrastructure such as bridges, roads and railroad track relocation. The funding was gathered after the city and private railyards developer Thomas Enterprises developed the project’s land use plan in 2006 and 2007. The money will finance work that will continue into 2015.

After Inland American Real Estate Trust took possession of most of the railyards site last fall, Halbakken led the transfer of ownership and agreements of the property, according to transportation department spokeswoman Linda Tucker.

In her new position, Halbakken has been loaned out to the City Manager’s office to work on the railyards project full-time. She now oversees all aspects of the city’s end in the enterprise, including planning, funding efforts and coordination with private developers.

Urban development experts recommended smaller-scale, market-driven development of the railyards in January.

The city needed to create the new post at this time because city staff must now work with Inland to revise plans for housing that must be built as a requirement of some of the funding already acquired.

Much has changed in the housing market since the land use plan was approved by the Sacramento City Council in December 2007. The start of housing construction hasn’t been scheduled, but should be within five years, Halbakken said.

The new post was also created as an attempt to build a new sports and entertainment complex downtown is kicking into high gear at the mayor’s office. Halbakken is overseeing coordination of plans for a future transit center with the developing plans for a Sacramento Kings arena.

The two facilities are expected to sit adjacent to each other on 33 acres of railyards land the city bought from Thomas Enterprises. She’s working with a city-wide team to answer questions about how to ensure both facilities are high-quality, she added.

They’re also looking at how to promote secondary development around the site, from downtown to the historic Southern Pacific Railroad central shops and the area to the east.

Halbakken is already working to keep current railyards infrastructure projects on schedule. Those include track relocation, which is phase 1 of transit center construction, and construction of bridges to extend Fifth and Sixth streets over the tracks north of H Street.

She’s not directly involved, but the city is now gearing up for infrastructure work that will improve highway access to the site and nearby Township 9: a $10 million off-ramp and road expansion and improvement project at the Richards Boulevard interchange at Interstate 5 slated to start next week.

Off ramps will each gain another lane. Richards Boulevard will be expanded with two more lanes in the interchange. Other improvements will be made to Richards Boulevard, Jibboom Street and Bercut Drive, which will be extended into the railyards site.

Bike lanes, sidewalks and planter strips will be added to Jibboom Street and Bercut Drive. The work on the I-5/Richards to Railyards Access Improvements project is expected to be done in the fall of 2012 and will prepare the area for the first phase or two of railyards and Township 9 development.

Tucker said in 10 to 20 years, the intersection will be redesigned to accommodate more traffic.

Halbakken is also starting preliminary planning for other aspects of the railyards project that are at least five years away, such as the transit center’s second phase – improvements to the adjacent historic Sacramento Valley Station train depot.

City officials are still trying to determine the impact California’s new state budget may have on the railyards finance plan, Tucker added.

The budget may cause an $80 million funding gap for the railyards’ planned $745 million in infrastructure if redevelopment agencies are no longer allowed to keep tax increments – the extra property tax revenue generated by development of the site, Halbakken said.

The Sacramento native worked as an engineer managing and designing facilities and high-level engineering projects with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until joining the city’s Department of Public Works in 1986.

She said she feels lucky to work on a legacy project that will lay the groundwork for the growth of her hometown’s central business district in years to come.

"I think this is really important to the city," she said. "One of the reasons I left the federal government was to work for the city where I was born and raised – and to give back."


Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @SuzanneHurt. 

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