The Aggie Express

Civic leaders around the world are working hard to attract the best and brightest young minds to their respective cities. Meanwhile, we’re losing thousands per year. Here’s how to get back on the right track.
Aggie Express
Illustration by Michael Byers


For a city that once connected people from across the nation by building the Transcontinental Railroad, we sure are having a hard time connecting the people in our own backyard.

When engineer Theodore Judah met with four prominent Sacramento businessmen in 1860 and pitched the idea of a railroad that would connect Sacramento to Omaha over a treacherous stretch of the Sierra Nevada mountains, they broke ground on the venture a mere three years later. And the last spike was driven into the track in 1869—nine years from pitch meeting to completion for the 1,776-mile connection.

Meanwhile, 145 years later, talk of an 11.7-mile light rail route from downtown Sacramento to the airport, for instance, has existed for decades. And due partly to funding restrictions, it’s nowhere near ready for takeoff.

But maybe that’s actually a good thing.

In the 30 years or so that local leaders have discussed the possibility of a light rail link to SMF, national observers of urban trends have discovered that a city’s most valuable asset isn’t quick and easy access to the airport, but rather a young, educated workforce.

As it happens, many of our region’s best and brightest live about 11 miles west of downtown Sacramento, in Davis. The problem is, the vast majority of UC Davis students aren’t staying in the area when they graduate. Most are taking their fresh new diplomas—along with their aspirations, optimism, energy and ideas—to other cities instead.

According to UC Davis’ alumni association, only about 13 percent of living UCD graduates currently reside in Sacramento County (compared to 40 percent for Sacramento State). That’s an alarming statistic, and should be a massive wake-up call for civic leaders here.

So what can be done? Near the top of the list should be to increase the ease with which students can access Sacramento and, by extension, the rest of our region. The most obvious way to do that is to extend Sacramento Regional Transit’s light rail line to Davis, via West Sacramento, as expeditiously as possible.

Quite simply, we need these students interning at more companies in Sacramento, getting more summer jobs here, and coming here to play—going to concerts, restaurants, nightclubs and sporting events. It’s this combination of career opportunities and quality of life that will help keep them here after they graduate. But it’s critical that we make it easier for them to get here first.

As if that weren’t reason enough to bridge the 11-mile gap between our two cities, UC Davis is now looking at creating a third campus—in addition to its main campus and the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento—in the railyards or West Sacramento. A light rail extension to Davis would make this side of the causeway an even more attractive option for the school’s leaders. And it would make the new Davis route an even stronger investment for Regional Transit.

The reality is that all major cities compete with each other. They compete for businesses, sports teams, cultural events, conventions, tourists and so on. But young, smart, ambitious people are the greatest prize of all. And while we’re doing a great job of producing them, we’re watching thousands of them leave every year.

Yes, we have excellent schools in the city of Sacramento, but those students already live and play here. Davis’ farmland-locked geography creates a tangible psychological gap from the rest of our region. Out of sight, out of mind. That means we need to work even harder to keep them in the area, whether the students end up in Davis, West Sacramento, Roseville, Folsom, Rancho Cordova or Sacramento.

While some UCD students have cars, many don’t. In fact, the university doesn’t even issue parking permits to freshmen. And, of course, Davis is the bicycle capital of America, so a car isn’t even necessary.

There’s Yolobus, of course. But with all the stops it makes, the trips between Davis and Sacramento can take nearly an hour. And the latest bus leaving the capital city on a Saturday night is 10:08 p.m.—closer to when college students are heading out on the town, not coming home. And while the Capitol Corridor offers train service between the two cities, it can be up to one to two hours between departures, with the last train leaving Sacramento at 9:10 p.m. Plus, it costs $9 compared to light rail’s $2.50 per trip.

Neither option begins to compare to the benefits of a cheap light rail ride with daily departures every 15 minutes, and an estimated 25-minute ride between cities. Light rail would be far less expensive than the Capitol Corridor, faster than the bus, more frequent than either one, and far more environmentally friendly than driving—all big incentives for college students.

Regional Transit’s chief operating officer Mark Lonergan says that if regional interest—and dollars—were there, a Sacramento-to-Davis extension that would run through West Sacramento could be highly attractive.

Lonergan believes that not only would the university and its 34,000 students provide a strong customer base, but so would the commuter base between the three cities. He also believes that a route to Davis would complement the proposed future streetcar system connecting downtown Sacramento and West Sacramento, perhaps even sharing some of the same tracks and providing easier access to Raley Field from both sides of the causeway. And downtown Sacramento’s new arena would benefit as well, tapping into a much larger audience for Kings games and concerts.

Other regions have already recognized the importance of bridging the gap to their respective college campuses. For instance, in 2018, the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System will complete its own 11-mile extension to UC San Diego in the community of La Jolla, connecting the university’s staff and its 30,000 students to downtown.

As always, the big question revolves around funding. Would West Sacramento or Davis or Yolo County or perhaps even the university be willing to share some of the cost? If so, such a train could jump to the top of Regional Transit’s priority list, right where it belongs.

Or could private dollars be available? In 1988, developer and then-Sacramento Kings part-owner Gregg Lukenbill offered that he and his partners would contribute up to $30 million to help fund a light rail extension to their Natomas arena and to the airport. He told The Sacramento Bee, “If they pay their fair share, we’ll pay our fair share and get the damn thing built in three or four years.”

It didn’t end up happening, but that’s the kind of pioneering talk that built the West.

So let’s apply that can-do spirit to a new Davis line. In doing so, we can land a far more valuable customer—one who won’t hop on a flight a few days later, but rather one who will build a life, and maybe even a company or two, right here.

With the Transcontinental Railroad, four Sacramento civic leaders laid the tracks for a better region (and a better country, too). Now we have the opportunity to lay some tracks here again, with the potential to make a far bigger impact on our community.

To paraphrase the American author Horace Greeley, “Go West, Regional Transit.” The young men and women of our region are our round-trip ticket to a brighter future.