Lee Gibson, executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) and City of Reno community development director John Hester told the Sparks Tribune Tuesday that the RTC will soon approve a contract for a consultant. The consultant will help Reno obtain federal funding for a proposed light rail system that would encourage more use of public transit, less dependence on cars and urban livability in downtown Reno, particularly along Virginia Street between California Avenue and Plumb Lane.
“There’s really an opportunity that as we increase and improve transit, we will attract more people and they’ll use that transit service for work and more retail shopping,” Gibson said.
Analysis for the possibility of bringing light rail to the city began in August 2007 and a concept was approved in April 2009. The entire project was initiated in October 2009 with a precursor to light rail – RTC's Rapid and Rapid Connect. The first phase introduced the green Rapid and Rapid Connect buses to the streets. The buses, making only seven stops in their routes, have made it quicker to travel downtown and through the Virginia Street corridor to Meadowood Mall, as well as reduced pollution.
The second phase would cost $67 million for streetcars on Virginia Street from UNR to California Avenue.
The third phase would extend streetcars from California to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center at $84 million.
Finally, light rail would be built from Lawlor to the convention center.
The plan to provide the system from North Virginia to the convention center would be an important move, Gibson said, because the center helps fill crucial tourism needs and space for the region’s conferences, making Reno-Sparks competitive with cities like Denver and Houston for special events.
Hester said keeping the light rail line on the ground would have its advantages, including making the transit easily accessible to the disabled in wheelchairs.
The streetcars, as seen in the RTC's model city, Portland, Ore., would have two cars per train. Trains would have automated ticket booths and systems to show when the next vehicle is coming at a stop.
To accommodate street space for light rail, RTC’s consultant would determine the best configuration for two to seven shared lanes.
“Our original idea was to widen Virginia lanes and put in an exclusive lane, but by doing a mixed flow, we would save over $100 million,” Gibson said.
Streetcars would be powered by overhead cables. Electricity for those cables could be provided from several sources, such as the Ormat facility in south Reno, which generates enough geothermal energy to supply every Reno resident with electricity. However, Hester said they were approached by a company interested helping RTC with a waste energy plant on Fourth Street, which is in close proximity to a plant on Sixth and Sutro streets.
“They told us, ‘We’d like to provide you with energy from the waste plant to run your transit,’ ” Hester said. “You start thinking about things like that.”
Moving to a streetcar system in the future would be about more than saving dollars for the RTC, said its executive director Lee Gibson.
It would be focused on improving livability for Reno-Sparks residents who are seeking to avoid urban sprawl, change their transportation mindsets to public modes to help make the environment cleaner and cut down on costs. Builders also would benefit by improving upon communities already well developed with transit, he added.
“Developers, who are already hard pressed when they do start building again, are going to be very mindful of how much of the infrastructure costs they have to bear,” Gibson said. “Locating downtown gives them the opportunity to tap into existing infrastructure instead of out on the fringe.”
The venture would also be about improving the downtown Virginia Street corridor and giving pedestrians and riders more accessibility to businesses.
According to Hester, car use in the Virginia corridor is about 87 percent. About 6 percent of people walk. Having a light rail system would decrease car use by 37 percent, walking would increase to 27 percent and transit use would be about 12 percent.
On-street parking would be taken away and sidewalks would receive aesthetic improvements. Hester said street parking along Virginia would be removed and surface lots would be developed near businesses. Sidewalks would be widened and enhanced aesthetically both for the safety of pedestrians, giving RTC the ability to facility the corridor’s redevelopment. The City of Reno now requires in its redevelopment code that sidewalks have to be 18 feet in front of stores, though not every area along Virginia would have pathways that long, Hester said. The area between the sidewalk and the street would be streetscaped with lighting, trees and vegetation.
Though major talk has been of improving Virginia Street, Hester said Fourth and Prater could be the easier option, but assistance from a consultant will aid in that decision.
“From the Reno side, Fourth may be easier because you have more right of way, but what we do with Virginia would directly affect Fourth,” he said.
Gibson said the RTC remains committed to providing alternatives in transit for Sparks.
“We’ve made a substantial investment in transit with Sparks with the Centennial Plaza project,” he said. “So we expect to continue to move forward in our partnership with the city of Sparks to continue to bring choices over there. Just in living here for six months, I’ve been impressed with the coordination between the cities of Reno and Sparks.”
“And RTC,” Hester added.
In the next few weeks, RTC’s Board of Directors is expected to approve the contract for the consultant for the federal funding application.