I first visited Safeco Field in 2001, during the Mariners’ 116-win season. The place was hopping back then the way it hasn’t since. When I planned this trip to Seattle I didn’t expect much. The M’s had the Brewers in town, so I wasn’t expecting thrilling baseball by playoff contenders. I looked closer at the schedule and found out that I was in for a treat. Saturday was Ken Griffey Jr.’s induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame, and there was to be an extensive pregame ceremony commemorating the event. There was also a Junior bobblehead, which was to be distributed to the first 20,000 fans (very A’s like number there), which forced many fans to line up six hours or more before the scheduled 6:10 game time. Needless to say I wasn’t interested in the collectible, so I took a tour and grabbed lunch instead.
During that first visit in 2001, I took a cab down 4th Avenue South from a downtown restaurant. The cab dropped me off on the east side of the railroad tracks from Safeco Field. Like many had done, I crossed the tracks at grade, looking both ways for freight or passenger trains. At the time local planners were working on a light rail extension that would finally link downtown and the neighborhoods to the south, including the SeaTac airport. The line finally came to fruition in 2009 and I was eager to try it out.
In conjunction with the light rail launch, additional road infrastructure was built to better support cars and pedestrians traveling to Safeco and CenturyLink Field. 2010 brought the Royal Brougham Way overpass, a simple two-lane structure that feeds pedestrians from light rail and parking facilities to Safeco and cars to a nearby garage. This overpass and another on the south side of the ballpark were part of an $84 million road project. During the intervening years, four pedestrians had been hit by trains on the BNSF tracks adjacent to Safeco, including one fatality. Naturally, ongoing safety concerns prompted the overpass(es) project, to good effect.
Like Seattle, Oakland’s Howard Terminal has an active, working rail line adjacent to the site. We’ve highlighted the train safety issue before. Seattle has dealt with the problem properly and elegantly, if also rather belatedly in the process. When you exit the light rail station just two blocks to the east, you can easily negotiate the gently curling ramp that leads over the BNSF tracks. There’s even a little plaza at the midpoint that provides a good view into the park. Once you cross, you can take stairs down or take an elevator straight to the center field gate.
Unlike Seattle, where Safeco is in the middle of the street grid with multiple entry and exit points, Howard Terminal is hemmed in on three sides by the Oakland Estuary to the south, Jack London Square to the east, and Schnitzer Steel to the west. That means it’s extremely important to ensure that there’s safe, reliable way to get thousands of fans from the north side of the Union Pacific tracks along the Embarcadero to the south side, where HT and JLS are. If thousands of parking spaces or a garage are built at Howard Terminal, it’ll be even more important as no one will want to compromise the rail line by having cars create gridlock around HT before or after A’s games. Chances are that a HT ballpark will need one vehicular bridge (probably at Market Street) and another dedicated pedestrian/bicycle bridge near JLS.
As you can see from the video above, the solution is working. It may have taken a decade, but Seattle finally got its rail and pedestrian solution figured out. Oakland can thank Seattle for leading the way. Stadium name sponsor Safeco, a nationwide insurance company based in Seattle, probably abides too. The issues for Oakland – if Howard Terminal moves into a real planning stage – are what kind of solution they can come up with, how much it will cost, and how long it will take. Seattle set the example. Oakland fans deserve the same kind of safety.
If you’re still skeptical, ask yourself this: Can you imagine the Coliseum without the BART bridge?