Union Pacific explains their Howard Terminal position

After the release of the Howard Terminal Draft EIR, I waited for the compiled comments to become available. Beneath the pleas from transit agencies and housing groups, there was a video provided by none other than Union Pacific (UPRR). The well-produced video comment is not much longer than a typical music video and comes with a highly professional voiceover.

Video illustrates hypothetical train parked in front of Howard Terminal

Union Pacific continues to raise concerns over the project, saying that it will impact its operations. The chief problem is that when a train stops at UPRR’s yard to the west of Howard Terminal, it will often be stuck there for 10-45 minutes as a long train is effectively split into three parts to fit it into the tracks at the yard. After that switching activity is completed the train can be loaded or unloaded. Presumably, the train has to be reassembled to some extent in order to begin its next journey.

Okay, we knew that going in, nothing new, right? Ah, but there’s a twist. UPRR acknowledges that despite its concerns, the City of Oakland could plow ahead with the project anyway. If that happens, UPRR is prepared to make demands. The big ask, which I heard from PMSA’s Mike Jacob in a discussion with Zennie Abraham yesterday, is that UPRR will request that all construction traffic be grade separated from the active rail line before construction on the rest of the project begins.

Block or charge? You make the call

It’s a reasonable request from a safety standpoint, one that I could see the Federal Rail Administration, Caltrans, and Amtrak supporting. If you’re going to reduce the risk of train-automobile or train-pedestrian/bike interactions, putting in a grade separation at Market Street (location not finalized) makes sense. The problem with that what we’re really talking about is putting in a big concrete bridge at Market, a piece of infrastructure that the A’s have been hesitant to commit to. As UPRR’s Robert Bylsma wrote in May:

So, apparently it was the Oakland A’s who made the decision to reject grade separation — the only safe and effective means of protecting Oakland A’s fans, as well as families residing in the Project area and other Oakland citizens, using Project facilities — as infeasible because of the “length of time it would take” to design and build, and would affect negatively “the Oakland Athletics’ competitive position within MLB.”

Of course, a fully grade-separated entrance to the site that can handle trucks and heavy iron won’t be cheap. It’s not a showstopper, since if that’s the cost of doing business at Howard Terminal, that’s the cost of doing business. It does push a major project cost to the front of the line where it would compete with other line items. Plus there’s the visual issue of an eyesore bridge going up before the ballpark or anything else along the waterfront. During last week’s session, City staff still considered the vehicular grade separation an alternative, not a requirement.

With the separate vehicular and pedestrian bridges added to the project, the grade separation cost alone threatens to run into the $300 million range. There’s no surprise there. Good quality infrastructure costs money. When HT was considered 10 years ago for a ballpark, guess how much a new BART station at Market or Brush streets was estimated to cost? $250-300 million. I guess in hindsight I can see why A’s ownership is being so tightfisted about an item as fundamental in 2021 as affordable housing. Even if your budget is projected to hit $12 Billion, every $300 million counts.

8 thoughts on “Union Pacific explains their Howard Terminal position

  1. ML,

    You make good points. Jack London Square has been a tourist destination since 1951. In the past 70 years the city of Oakland has not adequately addressed the long term coordination between retail, residential, and industrial use of the waterfront.

    However, I am an Oakland A’s fan who expects his favorite baseball team to follow the Raiders to Las Vegas. (Either the city council votes no and the move process becomes fait accompli or the city council votes yes July 20 and the project unwinds before or soon after the binding vote is made.) So discount my comments as the rants of a frustrated fan.

    Apparently Union Pacific is unwilling to stage switching operations around ballpark events. No mention was made about how the one grade separated crossing the Oakland A’s will build would improve traffic flow during the switching operations. I am looking forward to the next set of “concerns” from the Port Operations.

    1. Truck parking removed from Howard Terminal will decrease productivity.
    2. JLS retail west of the UPRR tracks should cease until grade separated crossings are built at Broadway, Harrison, Jackson, Madison, and Oak.
    3. Billions should be spent to deepen the Estuary channel so the port of Oakland won’t lose business to Puget Sound and Los Angeles/Long Beach.
    4. Schnitzer Steel should be allowed to dump more ferrous metal into the atmosphere so West Oakland residents can see the air they breathe.

    As I said, rants of a frustrated fan.

    • Disagree. The Port of Oakland has the tough task of dividing the waterfront among industrial, commercial, and the airport. The balance is even tougher these days because for years you couldn’t develop residential stuff on the water. Now that’s been eased somewhat with approved mixed-use development projects. The City tasks the Port to manage all of it. The City should be managing all of the inland areas, including those you would consider dense urban like downtown. Just because a City has waterfront land doesn’t mean it should be easily given over to commercial interests. Jack London Square was working waterfront 100 years ago. Attempts to commercialize it came in fits and starts. I point out frequently that after Loma Prieta, SF gave Oakland much of its industrial waterfront capacity. Oakland willingly took it and expanded it after the Army Base closed. The “retail” commercial part of Oakland is actually pretty small. Sometimes it’s a hidden gem, sometimes it’s under realized.

      People should be realistic about what the Oakland waterfront is. It’s not SF, San Diego, or Seattle. It’s a lot more akin to Portland, Philly, or Baltimore. It doesn’t have sparkling beaches though a handful of interests really want that. Instead it has developed wetlands. That’s okay. Can’t have beaches everywhere.

      • At least Philly and Baltimore still have their baseball teams. Pittsburgh has its baseball team. Perhaps Portland or Vancouver will land a baseball team. The difference is that these communities see the importance of an MLB team and they realize that commercial shipping and housing/retail/entertainment can coexist.

        Commercial Shipping: Up to the mid 20th century, most ships were unloaded in San Francisco because of the deep water harbor. Beginning in the 1960s Oakland emerged as the major port in Northern California, partly because of their ability to handle containerization shipping, mostly because of massive federal subsidies for channel dredging and intermodal freight rail transit. It’s difficult to determine what the future holds. Perhaps the port of Oakland will expand. If so, the Port of Oakland will need to pay the infrastructure cost. More likely the other west coast ports will expand (deeper channels and more cost effective rail transport…not to mention more land and a greater ability to accommodate the demand for housing). If Asia shifts mostly to high the high tech/chip manufacturing and if heavy appliance, auto, and clothing manufacturing shift to Mexico/the Caribbean or if the Panama Canal is doubled in size, we yet another dynamic.

        Housing/Retail/Entertainment: The Bay Area has an incredible high demand for housing, especially housing near water. The average cost of a studio apartment in the Bay Area is well over $2,000 per month. The only hope for affordable housing in the Bay Area is to build more luxury housing, family housing, couples housing, single person housing, and even co-housing. The greater supply of all types of housing will decrease the “gentrification” of many of the neighborhoods. Oakland can be compared to Emeryville. Both have a history of a gritty industry coexisting with housing and entertainment. From 1951 Jack London Square was the place to go for Oakland events (probably even more than Lake Merritt) such as the lighting of the JLS Christmas tree, the parade of yachts decked in Christmas lights, waterfront fireworks, and even the Oakland A’s fan fest. JLS has seen its share of retail (the largest Barnes and Noble in Northern California, Cost Plus Imports, Bed Bath and Beyond, The Spaghetti Factory, El Toritos, etc.). JLS was rebuilt to attract the retail that ended up at Bay St. Emeryville (The Apple Store, Barnes and Noble, etc). Likewise, Emeryville has had a history of industry, rail, and even a baseball stadium (the home of the Oakland Oaks) co-existing. The difference between Emeryville and Oakland, is that Emeryville embraces change and is willing to adapt.

        My great concern is that the A’s will leave for Las Vegas and Howard Terminal will eventually become office, retail, and housing with no ballpark. Once the A’s leave, Oakland will never see another MLB, NFL, or NBA team. (Perhaps the best hope will be a WNBA team at the Oakland Arena.)

      • Those cities work because of effective zoning. Infrastructure is targeted to places where it’s most effective, with buffers and transitions to insulate residential neighborhoods from others. If the A’s want to disrupt that (which I wrote about in May), you can bet there will be some complaints. During the last session a longshoreman complained that once housing is put up near the working terminal areas, there will inevitably be complaints about noise and pollution as the Port operates 24/7. City staff countered that residents will have to sign waivers preventing them from filing complaints. Do you think that a person who drops a cool million on a waterfront condo won’t feel entitled to complain? That’s how NIMBY works, and it works for industrial interests as a preventative measure as well.

        If the A’s were truly serious about this endeavor, they would’ve pushed for the zoning and the de-designation of the Port land in 2013 when the opportunity arose to do so. They didn’t, and HT remains in this gray area: not exactly in the Downtown Specific Area, and without the infrastructure needed to support it. Now Kaval says it’s the City’s fault for deferred maintenance. Hold on. If the A’s wanted this so badly, shouldn’t they have pushed for this activity back then? There was a booster group advocating for it, plus the mayor back then was supportive. They even started an EIR, which was never published. How about getting your ducks in a row, following the process, and seeing where that leads instead of trying to going around everything and alienating everyone?

        The thing that gets me is the false dichotomy that’s been presented by the A’s and that a (dwindling) number of fans who swallowed it whole. It really doesn’t have to be this hard. Yet this A’s chose this path. Their way of dealing with adversity is to jet off to Vegas every two weeks. Way to win the East Bay over, guys.


  2. I would imagine part of the A’s objection to affordable housing is beyond the cost of the affordable housing itself; it’s that having affordable housing near Howard Terminal reduces the likelihood that incredibly rich people will want to congregate in the area basically forever. If the Howard Terminal project creates a new affluent neighborhood, it creates a new affluent fan base forever – corporate wine enthusiasts who aren’t too concerned with the outcome of the game – and that’s worth far more than $300M long-term.

    The A’s aren’t leaving the Coliseum out of a burning desire to keep cost of attendance down for working-class and middle-class fans.

    • notsellingjeans you are correct. Sports stadiums (entertainment venues in general) are built for the affluent. Everything from private boxes to wine bars are targeted at people willing to drop at least $300 per event. That’s why the Warriors left to SF and the Raiders left to LV rather than remain at the Coliseum.

      ml you are correct. The port NIMBYs aren’t going to back down from their self-interests for the “benefit of the community”. The condo buying NIMBYs aren’t going to back down from their self-interests for the “benefit of the community”. Private landowners and developers are not going to discount their land for the “benefit of the community”. The A’s first choice was uptown and their second choice was Laney. Howard Terminal was an after thought (looking to be a pretty expensive after thought) when their first two choices fell through. The A’s aren’t going to drop $1 B – $12 B for the “benefit of the community”.

      The bay area affluent may well be tapped out. Perhaps the working and middle class will have to settle for the occasional discounted pro sports ticket that won’t feature two competitive teams or fireworks. Is minor league or college sports an alternative?

      P.S. ML thanks for providing a venue where A’s fans can communicate and reflect.

      • “That’s why the Warriors left to SF and the Raiders left to LV rather than remain at the Coliseum.” I might add that is also why the A’s wanted to relocate to $an Jo$e, now the richest metro on the planet! Perhaps the reason why the A’s chose the “path of most resistance” at HT; to finally get that ticket to much greener pastures $$$.

  3. There is no reason a new stadium can’t be built on the site of the old school one. John Fisher, the A’s owner wants the new stadium downtown because that would increase the value of his team. Fisher is already a billionaire as a result of clear cutting forests and exploitation of workers making clothes for the Gap. Why make a working port problematic just to increase the wealth of a billionaire?

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