Back-seat Driver: Why study doesn’t see arena gridlock

Will a downtown sports arena cause excessive traffic jams?

The city and the Sacramento Kings issued an environmental impact report earlier this week that said basically: For the most part, no. Other than a nasty backup on the J Street offramps from Interstate 5, there won’t be any significant traffic tie-ups on city streets on game nights.

For some readers, used to the wide-open landscape around Sleep Train Arena, that was hard to believe. Traffic on downtown freeways and streets is often heavy on weekdays. How could it not be even worse with 17,500 people coming downtown at once, all headed for Downtown Plaza?

In a follow-up interview with the Bee, the report consultants, ESA in midtown Sacramento and Roseville-based Fehr & Peers, offered an explanation.

For one, if 17,500 fans show up at the arena – a full house – they will arrive in only 7,000 cars. That’s because 10 percent of arena-goers are expected to walk or take light rail or buses, and the rest will arrive more than one to a car. The average number of people per car at Kings games is 2.27, the consultant said.

Another reason congestion likely will be mild, they say, is timing. City officials long have estimated that about 100,000 workers come to downtown and midtown daily, most in cars. The downtown grid and freeways creak a bit under their numbers, but generally they’re up to the task of getting workers where they need to be.

The bulk of those downtown workers leave between 4:45 p.m. and 5:45 p.m., while the bulk of Kings fans are expected to arrive between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. In that sense, one group heads out, making room for the next group heading in.

One major entrance into the downtown looks like trouble, though. The analysis shows a 15-minute average delay at the northbound and southbound ramps on Interstate 5 at J Street. Those are the freeway exits closest to the arena, and they will be carrying thousands of people who live north and south of downtown along the I-5 corridor

Consultants Brian Boxer and John Gard said this week they don’t think the delay at J will be as bad, in reality, as the computer modeling suggests.

Traffic, they said, is like water. It takes the path of least resistance, changing directions as needed. Some freeway drivers will immediately switch to new routes if the J Street ramps are clogged. The city also is likely to adjust the traffic signals at Third and J to give those cars longer green lights. In addition, the Kings are also expected to pay for a traffic management program, with traffic officers guiding drivers through intersections.

The prospect of congestion backing up onto the freeway brings up an as yet unanswered question: What does I-5’s owner, Caltrans, think? The state Department of Transportation can demand remedies if arena traffic creates a “significant” burden on a section of the freeway. Caltrans officials declined to talk to The Bee this week but said in an email they will be analyzing the new report’s traffic projections and will issue a statement in late January.

If the J Street ramp issue isn’t resolved some other way, there appear to be few other remedies. Caltrans could ask the Kings to contribute to a fund to help the state build carpool lanes on I-5, or help with a planned redo of the Richards Boulevard interchange. Fund proceeds also could go toward a couple of nearby projects that Caltrans supports, and which also could reduce traffic on the freeway – the proposed Sacramento-West Sacramento streetcar line or the planned bridge over the American River between Natomas and downtown.

If drivers avoid the J Street ramps, where will they go? Will they start coming earlier to games? Or will they switch to the Q Street or Richards Boulevard exits and cause increased congestion there? The report does not offer answer to those questions.

Another concern some readers have expressed: Unlike the daytime commuter crowd, which spreads out among many downtown offices, Kings fans will be converging on one target – Downtown Plaza. If every fan was bent on getting the closest parking spot, it could get ugly around the arena, especially since they will be competing for street space with pedestrians. The city is likely to widen crosswalks, add signal time for pedestrians, and block cars from using parts of Seventh and L streets on game nights.

The consultants said they think many drivers will be content to stop blocks short of the arena and settle for an easier parking spot and a longer walk. City officials point out there is a good mix of public and private parking garages and lots a few blocks from the arena on all sides.