Sacramento underestimating downtown arena traffic, lawyers say

Lawyers challenging Sacramento’s handling of its downtown arena project argued in court Friday that the city is grossly underestimating the number of people who might show up for an event and the resulting traffic congestion. They contend as many as 31,000 might attend a major event, if the Kings allow standing-room-only admissions inside the arena and if the plaza outside is packed with people as well.

City attorneys countered that they followed law and logic in their environmental impact review and that they analyzed traffic impacts based on the arena’s actual seating capacity, 17,500, because events drawing larger crowds will be rare.

The debate in Sacramento Superior Court on Friday came during what amounted to closing arguments on two environmental lawsuits filed by community groups challenging the city’s environmental review of the $477 million arena under construction at the former Downtown Plaza shopping mall.

Judge Timothy Frawley has 30 days to issue a final ruling in the case. Frawley issued a tentative ruling on Thursday that largely dismissed the claims in both lawsuits. But he agreed with the challengers, including former Caltrans director Adrianna Saltonstall, on one point, saying the city failed to include “enforceable performance standards” that will ensure the arena’s traffic-management plan actually helps reduce traffic problems.

The legal fight does not appear to threaten arena construction, which is scheduled to wrap up by October 2016. But if the judge rules that sections of the city’s arena environmental impact review do not meet California Environmental Quality Act standards, the city may have to reanalyze those sections, and the Kings could be compelled to spend more on traffic management during arena events and do more to help reduce freeway congestion.

The city’s arena traffic analysis, first issued in December, determined that the northbound and southbound I-5 offramps at Third and J streets would suffer 15-minute delays during the hour before Kings weeknight games, backing up onto the freeway, unless some of those I-5 drivers find alternate routes to the arena.

The Kings have agreed to pay an estimated $500,000 to help kick-start a streetcar line planned by West Sacramento and Sacramento that would run past the arena. Caltrans officials approved the deal, saying they believe streetcar usage could reduce some event-related congestion on Interstate 5. Officials with the two cities have estimated they would need $130 million to build and run the streetcar line, and are still working on a financing plan.

In court Friday, much of the debate centered on whether or not the city appropriately included performance standards to make sure arena traffic-management plans are successful. City representatives argued that the standards are in their final analysis, but because of a clerical error were left out of the final document approved by the council. One key mitigation would likely be police officers, paid for by the Kings, directing traffic on game night at the base of the J Street offramp from I-5.

The city’s counsel, Shaye Diveley of Meyers Nave, argued that the clerical error does not affect enforceability. Plaintiffs’ attorneys Kelly Smith and Don Mooney disagreed, calling the mistake more than a mere clerical oversight. Mooney called it “fishy,” and argued it could make it hard for the city to enforce a traffic-mitigation plan.

Mooney and Smith also contended that the true arena capacity is 31,000, not the 17,500 the Kings say, noting that the building has room for 2,000 standing-room-only attendees, and that the plaza outside will be able to hold 12,000. “They have ignored the outdoor event area, a major feature of the project,” Mooney argued. “That is going to impact traffic.”

Diveley countered that the city’s analysis is “based on a reasonable, predictable” full house. She contended the city cannot be expected to guess how many people may be in the plaza during the rare times that the plaza is used in conjunction with a filled arena. Sacramento Kings attorney Andrea Matarazzo agreed, saying that it is “atypical” to even have as many 17,500 people at arena events.

Kings spokesman Lorenzo Butler, in an emailed response later to a Bee question, said the team estimates that the plaza could hold 10,000.

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.