Here’s a tip for reading the 2,000+ pages of the Howard Terminal Draft EIR: Do a search for the term significant and read every paragraph that contains that word. It should give you most of the answers you need and reduce the amount of background info you would have to weed through.
Should you make that search, you would find that significant comes up 44 times in the Transportation and Circulation chapter (4.15) alone. That’s just one chapter, though as I intimated previously, it’s perhaps the most important one.
Normally when a big project like this is a released, there’s also a big splashy presentation of a potential solution to help mitigate whatever negative impacts are found. For Howard Terminal, that reveal was a gondola similar to what you might find in a ski resort. Though a gondola actually exists at the Oakland Zoo, its purpose compared to what’s being considered for the A’s is markedly different. At the Zoo, the gondola is way to move visitors quickly around the zoo grounds without disturbing the habitat beneath them. For Howard Terminal the gondola would fly over the decidedly urban jungle of city streets and a busy freeway, a habitat that openly invites visitor participation. Over at The Athletic, Steve Berman and Alex Coffey briefly examine the gondola with UC Berkeley’s Ethan Elkind. In the EIR, the gondola is on the CEQA procedural back burner (Chapter 5: Project Variants) because it would require its own land acquisitions and thus make it worthy of its own separate project analysis. That’s a bit of a cop out for something that was pitched as a sort of magic bullet. The reality is that it’s not, and the measures the A’s are proposing amount to chipping away at the last mile problem at HT.
Without a magic bullet, what’s a key solution? Quad gates. QUAD GATES??? For now, yes. Absent a vehicular bridge that would take Market Street car traffic – including emergency vehicles – over the heavily used UPRR line, the A’s propose to install automated quad gates, a beefed up version of what you typically see at a railroad crossing. The chief advantage of quad gates is that it should minimize opportunities for cars to try to get around the gates, which should in turn minimize chances for cars to get stuck on the tracks. Also in the proposal is fencing along the Embarcadero, much like the fencing available outside the existing Jack London Square Amtrak station.
In studying these mitigation steps, the EIR looks at traffic counts and interactions along the Embarcadero. While a handful of accidents are documented, it’s remains surprising how the A’s chose to focus their mitigation measures. You see, mitigation usually involves building infrastructure (very expensive) to avoid those interactions or creating barriers (not as expensive or effective) to prevent them, often both in tandem as needed. The A’s are choosing to go heavily with the latter by effectively creating a 1/2-mile bubble around Howard Terminal to exclude vehicular (and some pedestrian/bicycle) traffic. Cars in the area during events would be mostly limited to players and team officials, residents, and office workers of the new development. Gameday event traffic would be prevented from entering this bubble, especially A’s fans hunting for nearby parking or TNCs like Uber and Lyft. This is all done in an effort to appease Union Pacific and satisfy Federal Railroad Administration requirements.
A similar strategy was employed by the City of San Jose when the Diridon ballpark EIR was written with one major difference, the presence of an expanded transit hub that would include Caltrain, VTA light rail, and eventually, BART. Of course, that’s now water under the bridge and Google, not the A’s, is taking the arrows for the current project there.
Will the strategy withstand scrutiny? It might, but it will have to get more concrete if it’s going to pass muster. The 45-day comment period, which started when the Draft EIR was released, opened the window to what will assuredly be a lengthy negotiation between stakeholders. Speaking of some of those stakeholders:
So far the private interests at the Port and the A’s are negotiating by lawsuits against the state acting as proxy battles instead of trying to hammer out working agreements. Perhaps if UPRR, Schnitzer Steel, and the trucking companies see their lawsuits going nowhere fast they will more quickly come to the table, which is an outcome that the A’s would love. However, I suspect that the piecemeal mitigation measures are not going to be satisfactory for the Port interests, and that will come out in the comments and lawsuits to follow.
What will they be fighting over? Some of the conclusions in the report declare that impacts are significant and unavoidable. They mostly center around the rail crossing on the Embarcadero. There is a plan for a pedestrian/bicycle bridge at Jefferson or MLK that would connect the ballpark and development to the transportation hub. Beyond that, all crossings in the immediate area will be done at grade. As we’ve discussed previously, that invites danger.
Are these issues showstoppers? As usual, it depends on who you ask.
In the next installment, we’ll cover the transportation hub, its projected efficacy, and the methodology of this EIR.