The Sacramento Kings have agreed to pay $500,000 to help launch a downtown streetcar line as part of a landmark deal with Caltrans to reduce traffic tie-ups that an arena is expected to cause on local freeways, state and city officials say.
The tentative agreement, brokered by the city, represents the first of several potential “environmental mitigation” costs the basketball team is likely to incur as it builds a $448 million arena in Downtown Plaza.
Caltrans officials said the arrangement sets a precedent they want to see replicated throughout the region, where developers pay traffic improvement fees to help keep local freeways from being overburdened by growth. Under California environmental law, developers must take reasonable steps to reduce the negative impacts their projects cause, including traffic, pollution and noise.
Caltrans district chief Jody Jones said her agency has agreed to let the city use the Kings’ fee to help kick-start a long-planned streetcar line because it would help disperse freeway traffic on event nights.
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In a brief email, Kings President Chris Granger said the team is “proud to have worked with the city and Caltrans to identify a mitigation measure that provides substantial funding for the streetcar, which will help circulate people and improve the downtown transportation network.”
As envisioned, the streetcar would run on a 3-mile line through downtown that would go past the arena on K Street and include numerous stops. The line would connect the convention center, downtown hotels, the railyard and Old Sacramento. It also would cross the Tower Bridge for stops in West Sacramento, including Raley Field. The line is expected to cost $130 million to $150 million.
City officials said the goal is to have streetcars running by 2017, the year after the arena is scheduled to open. Sacramento and West Sacramento leaders say they hope to persuade the federal government to pay for half of the cost, but that U.S. Department of Transportation officials have privately told them Sacramento must first show that key local players are supportive and that local businesses are willing to help out financially.
A preliminary environmental impact report last month determined that the arena and ancillary development at Downtown Plaza would cause some congestion on streets and freeways, notably in the hour before Kings’ games. A line of waiting vehicles is expected to back up on the freeway in both the north- and southbound directions before arena events at the J Street ramps.
In a letter to the city last week, Caltrans officials said they agree with that traffic analysis. But Jones said the state’s own analysis shows additional stop-and-go traffic on I-5 between the Garden Highway and the freeway connection with Highway 50 to the south.
Jones said those traffic slowdowns are not expected to be major, and that congestion may even be slightly lighter than it is on the freeway in Natomas for events at Sleep Train Arena. Still, the agency says the Kings should pay a mitigation fee.
Jones said her agency initially looked to see if the money could be used to make improvements on Interstate 5, the freeway that would be most affected by arena traffic, but said officials determined it would be difficult and extremely costly to widen the freeway through downtown.
Instead, city officials suggested the Kings’ traffic fee be used as seed money to help launch a streetcar system the two cities and several local transit agencies have been studying.
“The streetcar makes a lot of sense as a mitigation measure,” Jones said. “It would disperse the traffic to multiple ingress and egress points from the state highway system. You would have people parking at alternative places, like Raley Field, and taking the streetcar to the arena.”
Sacramento City Public Works Director Jerry Way, who brokered the deal with the Kings, said the team has not signed a formal agreement, but recognizes it needs to make good on traffic improvements in order to build the arena.
“In order for Caltrans and the city to be OK with the impacts, they are going to pay this fee,” Way said.
He said the fee amount is based on a methodology the city and Caltrans set up several years ago during negotiations over downtown development projects. Caltrans officials said they hope to win developer OKs to pay the fee for any large project near the freeway, including in the railyard or on Capitol Mall.
The fee would be due if the Kings receive building entitlements from the City Council this spring, and may end up being higher than $500,000, Way said. The Kings likely would pay additional fees later as more of the Downtown Plaza site is developed.
Way acknowledged it is far from certain, however, that Sacramento and West Sacramento will be able to pull together enough local financing to build the streetcar line.
The two cities recently won a $5 million grant from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to do planning work in preparation for a larger federal grant application next summer. That includes reaching out to property owners about the possibility of creating a streetcar financing district that might be made up of properties within three blocks of the planned streetcar line, city officials said.
Way said if city officials are unable to get the line going, the Kings’ fee could be used for one of several other Caltrans’ approved traffic projects. Those include expanding the Richards Boulevards exit on I-5, and building a new bridge over the American River between downtown and Natomas to give drivers an alternative to I-5.
Jones said Caltrans agrees with the city traffic analysis that the bulk of downtown workers will have left the area in the afternoon before arena patrons arrive for weekday night events. In its letter, Caltrans said it expects the Kings and city to follow through on plans to set up a traffic management program on city streets on event nights, to shepherd vehicles to and from parking areas.
Other local businesses, groups and agencies also weighed in last week as part of the arena environmental review comment process.
Sacramento Regional Transit District officials reiterated their desire to work with the Kings to boost transit service for arena events. The Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates wrote that the project fails to provide adequate bicycle access to the site. State Department of General Services officials said they are concerned about traffic impacts around downtown.
The Alkali & Mansion Flats Historic Neighborhood Association wrote a letter expressing a variety of concerns about traffic, parking and neighborhood security. The general manager of the Holiday Inn on K Street wrote that her company is concerned about excessive late-evening noise from the arena.
A group called SacMod asked the city not to tear down Downtown Plaza, arguing that some of the buildings are historic and adorned with distinctive sculptural surfaces. If the buildings must be torn down, the group is requesting the artwork be preserved and repurposed as public art.
The Kings and the city will respond to those comments in the final version of the environmental impact report. That report will be presented to the City Council in April as part of the council’s formal decision on whether to move forward with the arena project. Under the tentative deal, the city has agreed to put $258 million in cash and land into the arena deal.