Light-rail officials: Trains could be key route to downtown arena

Sacramento’s light-rail operator made a bid this week for a bigger piece of the action at a downtown arena, asking Kings officials to impose a surcharge on arena event tickets to help pay for more trains and transit security before and after events.

Sacramento Regional Transit representatives, who made the proposal to the Kings on Monday, say they believe the funding boost could bulk up the transit system to attract as much as 20 percent of Kings fans – far more than the 7 percent that the Kings and city officials projected in an analysis earlier this week.

As part of their plan, transit officials say they’d also like to see arena tickets double as transit boarding passes.

“Our research says somewhere between 10 and 20 percent on light rail, if you put in place the conditions and incentives,” RT General Manager Mike Wiley said. “If we provide a high level of security at park-and-ride lots until after the event, that will make it more attractive to feel comfortable parking there.”

Wiley said he hasn’t discussed a specific amount with the Kings, but an RT analysis suggests a 50-cent ticket surcharge could bring in the money needed to provide solid service for arena events.

The proposal comes as the Kings and the city circulated an arena environmental impact report this week analyzing traffic and other potential impacts from the planned project at Downtown Plaza. While nearly 100 percent of event-goers at Sleep Train Arena in Natomas arrive in cars, the downtown arena opens up a variety of new transportation possibilities. Some arena-goers are expected to come over on foot from downtown offices and restaurants. Others may arrive on Capitol Corridor trains at the depot a few blocks north of the proposed arena. A small number are expected to bike to events.

Mainly, though, early analysis suggests the majority of people using alternative modes will come on light rail. RT has a light-rail stop at Seventh and K streets, a half-block from the arena site, and another stop a block away at Eighth and K streets.

Wiley of RT said a larger role for light rail at the arena could help ease vehicle traffic flows downtown during events, and could lead to more transit use in general around the region as Sacramento begins to grow again.

“We want to make sure this is tremendously successful from Day One,” he said. “Even a 1 or 2 percent increase on transit, will have a huge positive effect on reducing congestion.”

Kings President Chris Granger said Wednesday that team officials are interested in encouraging fans to use transit, but he said it is premature to discuss what arrangements the team might make with RT. The team also is conducting focus group discussions to see what fans want.

The Kings already have agreed to a 5 percent ticket surcharge at the new arena – that revenue would go to the city of Sacramento – and likely will be cautious about layering additional fees and charges on event tickets.

“It is too early to get into specifics on how we’ll work with RT,” Granger said. “We want this to be the best fan experience and that includes easy access to RT.”

RT, which was forced to reduce night service several years ago amid recession budget cuts, has slowly begun expanding service, and agency officials are actively searching for new revenue to speed the process.

Wiley said RT could use the surcharge money to boost service during game nights, adding security guards at park-and-ride lots next to light-rail stations and running night trains more frequently, likely every 15 minutes. The agency has parking lots in Folsom, Rancho Cordova, south Sacramento, along I-80 in North Sacramento, and recently finished a joint-use garage on the Cosumnes River College campus for a transit station that is expected to open there in 2015.

Sacramento city officials declined to comment on RT’s proposal, but said they are exploring ways to encourage people to arrive via public transit, bicycle, on foot, as well as from trains in the railyard two blocks to the north, where the city has committed substantially to investing in a new transit complex to accommodate expansion of the existing Capitol Corridor passenger train service from the Bay Area and Placer County.

The city said it is considering closing a section of Seventh Street during major arena events to give pedestrians free flow out of the east side of the arena to provide them an easier connection with RT light-rail stations.

Assistant City Manager John Dangberg said increased light-rail ridership would not compromise the city’s plans to use future downtown parking revenue to finance its portion of the downtown arena costs. The city’s financing consultants conservatively estimated that 20 percent of downtown arena-goers would not use cars, he said.

Wiley said his agency is launching the environmental review process to extend its light rail Green Line over the American River from downtown into Natomas and eventually to Sacramento International Airport. Those plans include a large parking lot at Natomas Marketplace. That planning process, however, likely will take two years, and will require a federal request for grant funds, making it likely the Natomas line will not be up and running until several years after a downtown arena opens.