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Sacramento, Calif., Transportation Officials Prepare for Downtown Arena Grand Opening

Sacramento's new downtown arena is set to open October 4 when Paul McCartney is in town. City leaders and transportation agents are working to figure out final details making sure they've thought of every variable.

by Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee / May 31, 2016
Artists rendering of Sacramento, Calif.'s new downtown arena Witter/Sacramento Kings

(TNS) -- Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center arena opens in the heart of downtown in just four months. For basketball and music fans, that’s great news. But for a small group of city officials, it’s pressure.

A team of police officers, traffic managers, and parking and transit officials has been working for the last year on a game plan for getting 17,000 people in and out of a tightly confined area smoothly. Time is short. Opening night starts with a bang: a sold-out Paul McCartney concert, Oct. 4. And the logistical questions are daunting.

The biggest among them may be how to keep fans from creating gridlock by driving directly to the arena for Sacramento Kings games and concerts in search of a close parking spot.

But there are others. What if hundreds of fans summon Uber simultaneously after an event, expecting a driver to meet them at the door? Where will bicyclists park? What accommodations should be made for people in wheelchairs? Can suburbanites be persuaded to try light rail? And how do you deal with hundreds of pedestrians crossing the street at once?

“It’s a lot of work, said Desmond Parrington, the city’s arena project manager. “It’s a blessing we have so many ways to get to the arena, but that does introduce a layer of complexity. There are a lot of moving parts.”

When the Sacramento Kings played at suburban Sleep Train Arena, the equation was fairly simple: Most everyone drove their cars to the arena, and parked in the adjacent outdoor lots.

Downtown, however, is an ecosystem of grid streets, some of them one-way, and randomly located garages, some hidden underground. It’s criss-crossed with bus and rail lines and packed with condos, offices and stores.

Parrington said he’s confident the transition to downtown will be relatively smooth, and that it will get easier over time.

“We have a good handle on things,” he said. “There certainly are going to be bugs that need to be worked out, but that is the case with every arena that opens.”

Sacramento benefits from being one of the last NBA cities to open a downtown arena. It can draw on other cities’ experiences. And city police have experience handling large crowds, including tens of thousands of gatherers for fireworks on New Year’s Eve in Old Sacramento.

The vast majority of arena-goers are expected to drive their cars into downtown. Some, like Duane Shintaku of Natomas, say they are concerned about finding a parking spot. “Traffic in the downtown area is already congested.”

The city’s game plan is to reduce congestion near the arena by persuading drivers to pick a garage blocks or more away and drive directly to it. That way, the streets around the arena before and after games can serve largely as a pedestrian zone rather than a convergence point for auto traffic.

City spokeswoman Linda Tucker said the message will be, “don’t drive to the arena. That isn’t where the parking is. If everyone does that, they’ll be circling around and around, and that isn’t going to be fun.”

Officials say they likely will close blocks of 7th and L streets after games to help pedestrians disperse. The city has installed pedestrian signal “count-down” heads near the arena to improve crowd movement and will widen some crosswalks.

City parking officials say they don’t believe parking will be an issue if drivers are willing to walk a few blocks. There are 15,500 parking spaces available in public and private garages and on streets within four blocks of the arena. A full house of 17,500 at the arena should generate fewer than 8,000 cars, since fans typically drive in groups of two and three.

Tucker said the city is planning a public outreach campaign for summer and fall that will urge arena patrons to do route planning and research parking garages ahead of time.

The city plans to launch smart phone apps and websites that offer information about parking, as well as alternatives to driving. One app, called “SacPark – Find Your Spot,” will allow arena-goers to reserve and pay for a spot in a parking garage in advance.

The city will extend meter hours beyond 6 p.m. in downtown this summer, and will charge higher rates during game nights at meters close to the arena. Metered spots near the arena will cost more than nearby parking garages. The city has not yet published event-night rates.

City traffic officials say their studies indicate there will be some street congestion, notably at the J Street off-ramps from Interstate 5, but that in general the grid system should disperse traffic well.

Nevertheless, police will be stationing officers around the arena to direct traffic flow. The city is installing cameras at intersections to monitor congestion hot spots and make adjustments. The arena will house a command center, staffed by Kings employees and city workers, also monitoring street cameras.

City officials say they have reached a deal with the state to allow arena employees to park under the W-X freeway to reduce competition for parking near the arena. Those employees would take shuttles to the arena or use light rail from the Broadway station.

Conversely, the city and transit officials are working on designating an area on L Street, directly at the arena base, as a drop-off spot for people in wheelchairs and others with mobility limitations.

It is uncertain how many people will choose to come to games and other events by modes other than car. Various estimates suggest 10 to 20 percent of arena-goers will use transit, ride a bike, hire ride-share, or walk from downtown offices and residential areas. Parrington said the city, Kings and transit officials are working on ways to make those avenues more attractive.

One possibility could be dramatic. Sacramento Regional Transit leaders say they are working on signing enough corporate advertising sponsorship to be able to allow Golden 1 Center attendees to ride light rail for free during the first year the arena is in operation.

That could persuade thousands of arena-goers to ditch their cars and take light rail to games. RT has thousands of available parking spots at park-and-ride lots along its light rail system, which runs to Folsom, Cosumnes River College in south Sacramento, and Watt Avenue at Interstate 80. The agency plans to bolster security at those lots on game nights, and will employe platoons of volunteer guides at stations help new riders.

The city, meanwhile, is analyzing likely spots to set up “bike corrals” where cyclists can leave their bikes with valets while attending events. Cesar Chavez Plaza, four blocks from the arena, has been discussed as a possible spot.

Ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, as well as taxis, are expected to play a role at Golden 1 Center, reducing the competition for parking by dropping people off. But those companies will pose traffic problems if their drivers try to drop customers off or pick them up right at the arena. Instead, the city is talking about setting up designated areas a few blocks from the arena for ride-share drivers and taxis to connect with passengers.

It’s uncertain how much of a role Capitol Corridor trains will play in ferrying people to and from arena events. Trains from Rocklin, Roseville, Davis and Bay Area cities stop at the downtown depot, two blocks from the arena, but the trains currently shut down before Kings’ night games let out.

Capitol Corridor executive David Kutrosky said in an email last week that his agency is considering schedule changes to serve the arena, but declined to offer details: “Going through the extensive review process and will know more in late July. Stay tuned.”

©2016 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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