Marathon traffic gridlock prompts Sacramento councilman to seek review

Alun Wynne, center, and Steve Klein, right, finish the Pony Express Marathon together at the state Capitol on Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Sacramento.
Alun Wynne, center, and Steve Klein, right, finish the Pony Express Marathon together at the state Capitol on Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Sacramento.

Traffic was so bad Sunday in downtown Sacramento that it drove a priest to profanity.

“People didn’t want to be around me because of all the bad things I was saying,” said the Rev. Michael O’Reilly of Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

Traffic snarled in downtown Sacramento, Land Park and South Land Park as nearly 70 road segments were closed for the Pony Express Marathon, a first-year charity event held by the Rotary Club of Sacramento. Dozens of residents complained on social media and through email to city leaders that they were caught unaware and struggled to navigate detours.

That prompted Councilman Steve Hansen to call Monday for a review of city road-closure procedures.

“It pretty much shut down the central city and Land Park,” said Hansen, who represents those areas.

The event featured 2,000 runners participating in a marathon, half-marathon and 5K races that started and ended at Capitol Mall. Race results show that 325 finished the 26.2-mile marathon route that meandered through West Sacramento, crossed the river back and ventured into South Land Park, Land Park and downtown before returning to the Capitol.

Organizers said they followed city requirements for special events, including contacting all property owners within two blocks of the race course and getting route approval from a panel of city officials.

“We’re sorry we caused a disruption, but there’s a benefit here,” said David Cohen, president of the Rotary Club of Sacramento, the event sponsor. The group will donate proceeds to two charities – Alpha Canine, which provides specially trained dogs for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, and Courage Worldwide, which provides homes for victims of the child sex trade.

Hansen said Monday he’s not satisfied that the city’s event requirements are adequate. He said he received numerous complaints about the Sunday event and has received similar criticism about other road races and other events.

Hansen said he will ask city staff members to review the requirements for permitting events such as the marathon. He said he may ask that promoters get a “performance bond,” a cash deposit ensuring they follow the city’s requirements. “I don’t think the process is working anymore,” he said.

He said he wants to learn more about how the city approved the race route and whether the city needs to expand its notification requirements beyond the two-block limit.

Melissa Romero, the city’s special events supervisor, did not return messages seeking comment about event requirements.

Rebecca Gordon, who was hired by the Rotary Club as event director, said she and others involved with the race knocked on the door of every property owner on the route and told them about the race. If residents were not home, race organizers left a letter. Other property owners received notification by mail, she said.


Gordon said she received about a dozen emails from people with concerns after Sunday’s race. She said next year she will include a list of closed streets in the notification letters.

John Casey, who lives on Larkin Way, about a block from the route along Land Park Drive, said he did not receive a notification. He said he was stunned Sunday morning when cars started flooding into his neighborhood because of road closures.

“They just dumped all these people into a residential neighborhood with no warning,” he said. “It was horrible.”

While notification would have helped, Casey said the route closes too many streets, including Land Park Drive and Riverside Boulevard, two major north-south corridors for Land Park and South Land Park residents.

Road races often require closures, but they rarely occur in residential neighborhoods as long as they did for the Pony Express Marathon. According to the event’s website, a section of Riverside Boulevard was scheduled to be closed for nearly six hours from 7:15 a.m. to 1:10 p.m., while Land Park Drive between the park and Broadway was scheduled for closure beyond six hours.

The closest comparison is the established California International Marathon, whose longest residential closure along J Street in East Sacramento lasts about five hours, according to its website. The December race, which started in 1983, has become enough of a city institution that many longtime residents know how to navigate detours on race day.

The Pony Express route closed almost 70 street segments, according to the marathon’s website. The route was selected to mimic some actual Pony Express routes, cover the necessary certification requirements to make it a qualifier for the Boston Marathon and other races and to highlight some of the region’s best areas, said Cohen of the Rotary Club.

The route was also designed to meet the expectations of the panel of city officials who had to sign off on it, said Gordon, the event director. She does not expect to change the route, since it took 14 months to conceive and get approvals for the current one. USA Track and Field has certified the course through 2026.

O’Reilly said he hopes organizers reconsider the route. He’s all for charity, the priest said, but he doesn’t want another Sunday in which he and his parishioners struggle to get to church.

“Too much of the city was blocked off,” he said. “This particular marathon uses too much space, too many streets.”