NHL Seattle betting big on the Monorail

In case you’ve been wondering what former Council member Rob Johnson has been up to in his new gig with NHL Seattle, today you get your answer.

Seattle’s new NHL franchise (which is still unnamed) will be making a huge bet on the Monorail as a connection to the Seattle-area mass transit system, and that will involve some important upgrades to the stations on both end.

Source: NHL Seattle

NHL Seattle has been collaborating with the Seattle Center and Seattle Monorail Services on a plan to make full use of the Monorail for getting thousands of people between the transportation hub at Westlake Center and the renovated Arena at Seattle Center that the hockey team will call home.

According to Johnson and Tom Albro, the owner of Seattle Monorail Services (which owns the Monorail franchise), this will involve improvements to the stations at both ends to improve capacity and throughput — but little change to the monorail itself (which is a good thing, since it’s landmarked).  They plan about $5-6 million of work on Westlake Station, and $3-4 million for the Seattle Center station. The Westlake Station work will be paid for by Albro’s company, and the Seattle Center improvements will be funded through a combination of fare box revenues, federal grants and city funding. The revenues and city funding are funneled through an ongoing capital improvement fund specified in the company’s contract with the city.

The design point that they are aiming for is the “crunch” at the end of a game or event, when everyone leaves at nearly the same time. They would like to move about 6,000 people back to Westlake in the first hour, which represents about 1/3 of the attendees at a sold-out concert at the Arena.  Believe it or not, the limiting factor is not the monorail itself, which during the 1962 World’s Fair could carry 450 people per train (it has since been reconfigured to 325). The limit also isn’t the Seattle Center station; that will see a crush of people, to be sure, but is set up to allow boarding on one side of the train and exit on the other, for both trains simultaneously. It will need some upgrades to optimize it for peak-flow again, but it’s apparently a well-understood process to convert it more or less back to its original configuration.

The constraint also won’t be the Westlake station itself, which will be substantially reconfigured. Today, four of the doors on the train are used for exit at Westlake while the other four are used for boarding. But that will be changed to allow all eight doors to be used for both boarding and exiting. The entire platform will be opened up as one contiguous area for waiting, boarding and exiting, rather than today’s arrangement with a corralled area for people waiting to board after they purchase their tickets. There will now be fare gates at the entrances to the platform, which will accept ORCA cards as well as tickets bought separately (including online). The platform may be enclosed — that is one detail that apparently has not yet been finalized (the below rendering is not a final design).

A conceptual rendering of a reconfigured Westlake monorail station. Source: NHL Seattle

The major traffic constraint, and not surprisingly the one trickiest to solve, is the vertical part of moving people between the underground light rail station and the Westlake monorail platform. Today there is an elevator and a staircase at the platform, and the escalators inside the mall can also be used — when the mall is open. But according to Albro and NHL Seattle, there are changes coming to the escalators within the mall to help them move more people. They have worked with Westlake Mall to be able to extend mall hours later into the evening, and to be able to reconfigure the escalators to all travel down during the crunch time after a concert or game lets out.

A conceptual rendering of inside Westlake Center next to the Monorail platform.  Source: NHL Seattle

In addition, there will be access to a second elevator, at the Saks store. It still won’t be as efficient as the original downtown Monorail station, but it will certainly be better than today.

The original downtown Monorail station in 1962. Source: NHL Seattle

Johnson said that he expects with faster loading and unloading, the monorail can run with 3-5 minute headways during peak periods, to help meet the goal of 6000 people per hour. Albro expects construction to begin in January 2021, and complete at the end of the summer — in time for the scheduled re-opening of the Arena.

Johnson also revealed some of the other moves that NHL Seattle will be making as part of its commitment to efficient mass transportation. The team will be fully subsidizing transit rides for all 41 home NHL games, for those guests without company-sponsored ORCA cards. Note that this is for the NHL games only, not for concerts — no news on that front. The exact mechanism for the transit subsidy has not yet been determined: it might be done through the ORCA Next-Generation system, which is expected to roll out about the same time. Or through the NHL Seattle app, which will be a necessity since the Arena will be a ticket-less building — all digital, no paper tickets. Or it might be done through one of the other transit apps available. Johnson said that they have not yet thought through the equity issues involved with moving to an all-digital system for tickets and transit passes.

Johnson said that of the 2,600 people who have already signed up for club seats for the NHL games, 26% said that they plan to use public transit to get to the games. That said, Johnson has also been thinking hard about how to best manage the 1,400 parking spaces under the Arena’s management for the predicted 15% of their customers who live in the suburban/exurban crescent and for whom public transit is not a practical option. His goal is for people driving to know where they will be parking before they arrive at the Seattle Center, thus avoiding people driving in circles trying to find a place to park. He expects that will reduce some of the traffic impacts on the surrounding community.

NHL Seattle has been modeling where its customers will be traveling from, and whether they will walk, drive, or take public transportation.