Seattle must ensure that the renovated KeyArena at Seattle Center is accessible for visitors from around the region, most of whom will arrive in cars. This will require the city to reassess its transportation strategy to address worsening congestion.
SEATTLE’S plan to renovate KeyArena for NBA basketball and NHL hockey should be a boon to the Puget Sound region.
In choosing this location, and arranging for management company Oak View Group to finance the $600 million project, the city committed to making it work.
But success will depend, in part, on whether this marquee venue is reasonably accessible to the 4 million people in Greater Seattle. That’s the market that can support more sports franchises and concerts, not the city’s relatively smaller population of 700,000.
Getting this right is also critical for a region that experiences massive gridlock and choked freeways when Seattle’s brittle street network is disrupted by events or accidents.
This puts Seattle at a point of reckoning. The city has no choice but to accept that its success and vitality depend on welcoming, not repelling, people who live elsewhere and travel by car. It must plan for the reality that cars will continue to be the predominant mode of travel for arena patrons.
Seattle said as much in the arena’s draft environmental impact statement released last week. A majority of attendees will arrive by car, even after a nearby light-rail station is complete. Some 70 percent of the drivers will arrive via Interstate 5.
The study says bicycle use will never exceed 1 percent of visitors, even if Seattle proceeds with plans to convert right of way to bicycle paths on more arterials downtown and adjacent to the arena.
Just under a fourth of arena visitors are expected to take light rail in 2035. But longer, more frequent trains will be needed to handle both commuters and arena crowds.
Traffic already is terrible between Seattle Center and I-5. Twenty intersections on the Denny Way and Mercer Street corridors are considered failing during peak hours.
Despite huge investments in rail, bike paths and bus lanes, the EIS projects worse congestion in 2035. Eastbound traffic on Denny Way will slow from the current 3 mph to 1.5 mph at peak hours.
Eastbound Mercer Street traffic will crawl at 2 mph. Westbound speeds will fall by half, from today’s 10 mph to an optimistic 4.5 mph, with the arena.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has vowed to support the arena and make data-driven decisions. The EIS should help, with loads of data suggesting Seattle needs bold leadership to reassess its traffic strategy.
But Durkan and the City Council have work to do restoring trust in City Hall.
Last week, The Seattle Times revealed transportation management failures, raising questions about the city’s competency. Times’ reporter David Gutman disclosed that Seattle misjudged costs and mismanaged spending on projects funded by its $930 million Move Seattle levy. The city overspent on bike lanes, won’t get to promised bridge and street work and tried to blame President Donald Trump. A spending oversight committee was co-chaired by transit activist Shefali Ranganathan, who Durkan named deputy mayor in November.
Another story, by reporter Mike Lindblom, disclosed that Seattle is failing to boost bus service as pledged with a 2014 tax increase, another campaign led by Ranganathan. Seattle is able to provide just one-seventh of the promised bus trips. The transit system doesn’t have capacity to provide all the service and Seattle was unable to provide a budget of how it’s spending the taxes.
Now the public is being asked to trust Seattle to figure out how to repeatedly get 18,000 people to Seattle Center during rush hour.
It doesn’t help that the EIS considers an inane proposal to block visitors from using a third of the existing arena garage, and also force OVG to provide less than half the parking spaces it plans to add underground.
This “alternative 2” is a token attempt to discourage driving. But the EIS says that won’t happen: Most people will still arrive in cars, including personal and car-service vehicles.
Because local parking is tight, “a substantial number of cars would circulate for multiple blocks looking for parking and increasing conflicts with other modes; this would be a significant impact,” the study says.
Seattle can do better. It’s time to take extraordinary measures to provide the best possible experience for visitors to the arena and Seattle Center, which will also benefit the city, residents and commuters.
The arena is a new beginning for Seattle Center.
It’s an opportunity for Seattle to show that it can learn from mistakes and make wise decisions, informed by data. That would support a tremendous investment in the heart of the city and benefit residents and the region for generations.