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.
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.