The upcoming NHL team in Seattle is making up to a $7 million investment in the city’s monorail, with a plan to offer free transit rides to ticket holders.
It’s a strategy that traces back to Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts, according to NHL Seattle Vice President of Transportation Rob Johnson.
Johnson said he had already presented the transit idea before the Warriors announced their plan for free rides to ticket holders in July 2019. Still, once that campaign was out, the move was much easier.
“The idea was getting some traction, but it’s an idea that took hold once people saw they were doing it,” Johnson said, adding his boss, Tod Leiweke, worked with Welts at Golden State. “If Rick Welts is doing it, we should follow his lead.”
The Warriors have seen 38% of their fans use the light rail system to arrive at games, but Welts said the team has also seen ridership as high as 49%.
The Warriors aren’t the first franchise to start a free rail program under Welts’ leadership. The first, and only other team in the U.S. with such a program – was the Phoenix Suns, who developed a partnership with Valley Metro under Welts’ watch in 2008 as the NBA All-Star Game was coming to town.
“Valley Metro was opening their first phase of light rail that passes in front of the arena through downtown Phoenix, it prompted a conversation with them,” Ralph Marchetta, Suns general manager of sports and entertainment, said. “It turned into a bigger conversation for all our events, and it’s been a great partnership.
“Rick was a visionary when it came to putting it together and continuing with it wherever he goes.”
Welts’ legacy in Phoenix lives on through the program, which doesn’t have an exact way to track how many people use the trains. Still, Marchetta says anecdotal and observational evidence shows a good number of people use it every event.
For Welts, the concentration on transit comes from a forward-looking mentality when it comes to tackling problems – in the case of both San Francisco and Phoenix, the close proximity between two sporting venues that could cause traffic issues.
In San Francisco, Chase Center’s biggest hurdle, and the point critics were loudest, was the potential traffic congestion.
“We felt it was a true motivator to get people out of the cars and benefit everybody coming to the event,” Welts said. “Traffic component has been the biggest success story when people felt it would be the failure.
“It’s not cheap, but it’s also eliminated what the biggest headache was.”
Seattle is tackling transportation head-on, with Johnson leading the way because its arena is in a dense, urban environment and a population extremely conscious of environmental impact.
“We think about fan experience as from the moment you’re leaving to go to the game to the minute you get home,” Johnson said. “Transportation is a critical part of the fan experience. There have been lots of ripples the past few months of fans who have attended an event that has left that experience not buzzing about the great show or game, but fuming about the terrible traffic situation.”
The Seattle Mariners had piloted a similar rail program, Johnson said, but have since discontinued. But Seattle Center Arena is situated at the center of a 74-acre campus constructed for the 1962 World’s Fair, including a monorail to help facilitate crowds from downtown to the center of the campus. That monorail hasn’t seen upgrades since the 1960s, which is where the $7 million private investment comes into play.
“It needs additional TLC if it’s going to carry the type of surge we anticipate,” Johnson said. “We think this is a huge capital investment that unlocks a lot of options that we think are more reliable, less expensive, and less time-consuming than driving.”
Based on early projections, NHL Seattle believes the train could help cut commute times in half from home front doors to the arena.
The team anticipates approximately 25% of its fans will use the program – which will connect the arena to downtown Seattle, allowing fans cheaper parking options, more curb space for ride-sharing, and connections to the city’s growing light rail system.
With another 40% of fans expressing interest in rideshare options, NHL Seattle is also working on shuttle bus solutions to and from parking lots, including those at large employer lots, like Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia, and Boeing.
Unlike Golden State’s system, Seattle will use apps to help track usage and pay per usage. The apps will also help provide ways to see where routes should be expanded and decreased, as well as how to shape marketing efforts.
In Phoenix, because there are no gate controls, the Suns came up with a system that sends a portion of a ticket’s facility fee to Valley Metro.
Many Seattle area employers also provide employees with free ORCA Cards for transit, so Johnson said the team would encourage them to use those cards.
“We want to subsidize those who need it and not those who already have a bulk purchase,” he said. “Our hope is to continue to change fan behaviors and make sure our resources are directed to those who need it most.”
Welts has been bullish on the transit partnerships, but he knows it’s not possible in every market. He said Chase Center benefitted by an existing stop that has been expanded to stage multiple trains, allowing a high frequency.
“I certainly hope [it continues to catch on],” Welts said. “A lot of it is dependent on the proximity of a playing facility to transit. It won’t do a lot of good in cities that don’t have public transit close, but those who do should see it as an opportunity to make an impact on travel for fans and traffic.”