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New sports-arena plan called threat to $3B business
The Port of Seattle and the Manufacturing Industrial Council say a proposed NBA and NHL arena in Sodo could cripple Seattle's marine-cargo operations.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The trucks start lining up along Edgar Martinez Drive South before 8 in the morning, when the Port of Seattle's marine cargo Terminal 46 opens its gates. They line up along First Avenue South, in front of Safeco Field, at times during the day, caught in commuter traffic or backed up by passing trains.
The Port of Seattle's marine-cargo operations on Elliott Bay are among the largest in the country and generate more than $3 billion in business revenue, state and local taxes, and about 56,000 related jobs.
But, Port officials say, its success depends on the access and speed with which the trucks move the cargo from ships to the nearby rail yards and freeways.
The Port, the Seattle Mariners and the Manufacturing Industrial Council that represents more than 60 businesses in the area all have objected to putting a new sports arena just south of Safeco Field. They say an estimated 200 events a year at the arena, including NBA and NHL games, would add to the congested traffic conditions in the north Sodo neighborhood and threaten the city's industrial engine and maritime trade.
"Most of this would survive," says Dave Gering, head of the Manufacturing Industrial Council, as he surveys the giant cranes and colorful stacks of freight containers visible on the skyline just west of the Mariners and Seahawks stadiums. "But what part of $3 billion do you want to give up?"
Chris Hansen, the San Francisco financier who has proposed a new 18,000-seat arena, stepped up quickly earlier this month and offered to pay for a $50,000 traffic study, hoping to allay some of the concerns about parking and congestion around the proposed arena.
The study will review other cities with multiple sports venues to understand how they schedule events, will identify the alternate ways for fans to reach the arena and will evaluate parking in the Sodo neighborhood. It also will outline how the new teams could effectively manage traffic.
Mayor Mike McGinn has hired former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis to conduct outreach on the traffic study to stakeholders, including the Port and the Mariners. Ceis is being paid $43,000.
The traffic study is due back to the City and County councils in six weeks. The short timeline worries the city's Freight Advisory Board members, who noted in a letter last week to McGinn and the City Council that the councils will be asked to approve a memorandum of understanding to proceed with the arena before the real transportation impact is understood.
The board asked that the mayor and council not adopt the memorandum until the full effects of the arena on freight movement and international trade can be more thoroughly examined.
The controversy over the arena's location is also highlighting the relative lack of importance which the city, under McGinn, has placed on freight mobility.
The city just completed a transit master plan. A pedestrian master plan was done in 2009.
Both an update of a 2007 bike master plan and an update of a 2005 freight-mobility plan were included in the $60 car-tab measure defeated in August. The city has since found $250,000 to update the bike master plan, but has told freight board members that because of city budget cuts, money won't be available for a master plan.
"Six percent of people ride bikes, 11 percent take transit, but 100 percent depend on freight," said Warren Aakervik, chairman of the Freight Advisory Board and president of Ballard Oil. "We need to protect the very few truck routes we have."
Since objections by the Mariners and the Port were raised, BNSF Railway, which operates a big railroad yard in Sodo, has also questioned the proposed arena location, saying the Arena Advisory Panel appointed by McGinn and King County Executive Dow Constantine gave "little attention to the very large issues of traffic, parking deficits, freight mobility or potential effects on the Port's international trade."
Those objections were outlined in an April 5 letter to City Council President Sally Clark by Terry Finn, executive director for BNSF Railway government affairs.
Stadium supporters argue that an 18,000-seat arena would generate far less traffic than a sold-out Mariners game, at 47,000 fans, or one at the Seahawks' CenturyLink Field, at 67,000. And with most of the events held at night or on weekends, the city says there won't be a lot of conflicts with freight.
Hansen, who has proposed privately financing almost $300 million of a $490 million arena, notes that the planned site between South Massachusetts and South Holgate streets is in a stadium district and that the challenging traffic conditions in Sodo existed before he made his proposal.
He also argues that the industrial areas in cities inevitably evolve and become redeveloped into office buildings, hotels and other uses.
"To the extent that we're accelerating that process a little bit, hopefully that's a good thing," he told The Seattle Times editorial board earlier this month.
But that's a vision that frightens those who want to protect Seattle's working waterfront and its remaining industrial lands. Seventy percent of the Port's maritime business is discretionary, said Linda Styrk, managing director of the seaport. Earlier this year the seaport lost about 20 percent of its business to the Port of Tacoma.
"We're in a competitive environment. If it's harder to get here, or takes longer because of the traffic issues, our customers can go somewhere else," Styrk said.
The Mariners say that traffic in Sodo is getting worse. Bart Waldman, the team's vice president for government affairs, said tolling on the Highway 520 bridge has caused commuters to migrate to Interstate 90, with backups at rush hour into Sodo when many fans are trying to reach the stadium.
Construction of the Highway 99 tunnel and development has eliminated almost 4,000 parking spaces in the neighborhood, he said. And because the tunnel is being built without any downtown exits, more traffic is expected to exit onto First Avenue South in the coming years.
A traffic analysis the Mariners commissioned in February concluded that concurrent events at Safeco and the proposed new arena could have "monumental impacts" on traffic and parking.
"My nightmare scenario is we have Felix Hernandez bobblehead night against the Red Sox at the same time they've got a playoff game and people are sitting on I-90 trying to get here for two hours," Waldman said.
"The fan who turns around, goes home and disappoints their kids doesn't come back."
Critics of the arena also say the city built only one of three promised overpasses meant to ease traffic around the stadiums and ensure the efficient movement of freight.
Just one overpass, on Edgar Martinez Drive South, connects with I-5 and I-90. A planned overpass at South Lander Street wasn't constructed and is estimated to cost about $180 million.
City officials say the impact on traffic from a new arena has been overstated. By 2022, light rail will extend north to Northgate or Lynnwood and east to Redmond, providing many fans with an alternate way to reach the games.
The existing sports teams are required by the city to provide traffic-management plans to move people in and out.
Teams at a new arena would face the same requirements, said Bob Chandler, assistant director for strategic projects at Seattle Department of Transportation. He doesn't think a new arena is a threat to the city's maritime industry or international trade.
"Is there enough capacity to move freight through there? I think there is," Chandler said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-909-7580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @lthompsontimes.