For an A’s ballpark at Howard Terminal, how should Oakland bridge the 1 mile distance from BART?
— newballpark (@newballpark) February 6, 2017
The discussion always starts the same way. I throw out a question or poll to my Twitter followers about transportation at Howard Terminal. Most of the respondents are A’s fans who want to understand the options. Some are locals to the Jack London Square neighborhood or are from adjacent areas (West Oakland, Downtown/Uptown, Lake Merritt). There are always the inevitable “people can walk the mile” or “we don’t need anything more than a shuttle bus” folks who don’t understand how flawed (and usually short-term) such ideas are. And then there are the transit geeks, who envision something that could create better transit links for Oakland and the East Bay. That last part is what I call transit feature creep in that they always get away from the project-level needs and goals. The result is a general lack of consensus.
It starts and ends with how BART was conceived and implemented. BART is a “rapid” system, using equipment and grade-separated (from traffic) alignments like legacy systems such as the New York City Subway and Chicago’s “L”, along with newer systems such as Washington Metro and Atlanta MARTA. The first three have metro-systems with many systems in dense, urban areas, whereas MARTA is more like BART in its more spread out stations and extensions into the suburbs. Trains were designed to be more comfortable than their urban counterparts in order to attract suburban riders. As BART was built, Oakland became the spine of the system, though none of the stations in Oakland’s core are true transit hubs other than their connections to AC Transit buses. There are transit hubs elsewhere in the BART system (SF’s Market Street stations, Millbrae, Richmond) but with Oakland, the lack of a streetcar or light rail solution to better cover downtown and link neighborhoods has always seemed like a lost opportunity.
Prior to BART, the Key System provided streetcar to Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville. It at first connected to SF-bound ferries via a long pier, or mole. Later it traveled on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, terminating at the Transbay Terminal. The Key System then became part of a diabolical plan to kill off streetcars and replace them with buses. BART filled in the transbay aspect of the Key System, but most other transportation needs are handled by AC Transit, a situation that the Eastshore has lived with for 40+ years. AC finally started construction of a BRT (bus rapid transit) line that runs from downtown Oakland on Broadway to San Leandro BART via International Blvd. It will have streetcar/trolley-like stations, though the route will avoid currently low-traffic neighborhoods such as Jack London Square/Howard Terminal and Brooklyn Basin in favor of denser neighborhoods.
The map above, which shows the northern part of the BRT route, largely covers the same ground as the planned streetcar except for the aforementioned JLS/HT/BB Estuary neighborhoods. If the new BRT route succeeds, it’ll lead to further rollouts elsewhere, such as San Pablo Avenue, where there’s already a limited-stop “rapid” line 72R in place.
By now I’ve spend 520 words talking about transit that doesn’t serve a ballpark near Jack London Square, which may feel like a waste of time to you. There is a point – that all this talk of trying to include every neighborhood and constituency leads to losing sight of projects that can provide great effectiveness at the scale required. It’s not the oft-discussed, still under study streetcar. It’s not an infill BART station between West Oakland and 12th Street, which would be close to Howard Terminal (1/4-mile) but not close enough to Jack London Square (3/4 mile) to make sense. Shuttle buses are only a temporary solution. Any bus solution would be hampered by limited peak capacity to handle crush crowds for events at a ballpark. The answer is nothing in the poll I posed two weeks ago.
The answer lies in how BART is constructed along Broadway. If you’re a frequent rider, you know that the stations along Broadway have two platform levels. The upper platform is for trains traveling north, either along the Richmond line or the Pittsburg/Baypoint lines. The lower platform is for southbound trains heading to Dublin/Pleasanton, Fremont, and by virtue of BART’s alignment, San Francisco. However, all of the southbound trains only travel on a single track, effectively using half of the platform. BART left the space there for expansion, including a potential second Transbay Tube or service to Alameda. For the purposes of a ballpark, let’s start with a simple BART spur to Jack London Square.
The spur would run from the 12th Street Station to the heart of JLS (Broadway & Embarcadero), with the station having portals on either side of the Embarcadero. If developed properly, the station could partly solve the pedestrian safety problem by providing an underground concourse for fans to use before and after games. Fans exiting at Broadway and Water would be a mere 1/4-mile away from a Howard Terminal ballpark, allowing for a leisurely stroll through what would surely become very high-rent retail property.
This option would be the most desirable and hassle-free for BART riders. Consider how they would never have to leave the station to transfer, riders from Berkeley or Walnut Creek only having to walk across the platform. Riders from SF and Southern Alameda County would have to descend an escalator. That’s it. No having to leaving the station to wait in line for a streetcar or bus, or walk 20 minutes. Walking is nice if you have the time, but not convenient. Queueing for one of multiple 50-person buses is never fun if you’re person 200 in line. Muni streetcars work for the Giants, mostly because can transfer to BART within the same stations on Market Street.
Ridership forecast for the spur in the 2004 Jack London BART Feasibility Study was estimated to be 3,000-4,000 riders on weekdays, half that on weekend days, for a rough total of 1.2 million riders annually. That was without a ballpark in the area. Take 82+ dates of decent (30k, not sellout) ballpark crowds and the current percentage of BART riders (20-25% percent) and the ridership for the line could grow up to 50%! From an operations standpoint, there’s a good chance that the spur could be automated, like the Oakland Airport Connector. Since it would be a direct connection, the trip would take 3-4 minutes, the same time it takes to travel from 12th Street to Lake Merritt.
The spur doesn’t come without downsides. It would involve a tunnel, which is by far the most expensive alignment option. Muni’s Central Subway currently costs $500 million per kilometer. A kilometer is slightly shorter than the distance from 12th Street to JLS, though I suspect engineering could be a little cheaper by simplifying the process (no station in between, no cut-and-cover operations). The feasibility study estimated the cost to be $180-250 million more than a decade ago, expect the $500 million estimate to be more in line. That’s a ton of money, but it would come with far less upheaval coming from digging up dozens of Downtown Oakland blocks for years. And unlike streetcars or buses, a BART spur would not mix into surface traffic, ensuring a much smoother, efficient trip to and from JLS. Plus there’s also the chance for user fees, such as a $1 ticket surcharge for ballpark events, to help fund the project.
The other caveat is that spur wouldn’t directly connect with the Jack London Square Amtrak station. That’s not as big a deal as you might think, considering that the western end of the Amtrak platform at Webster is less than 800 feet from Broadway. Having a portal on the landslide of Embarcadero and improved wayfinding should help significantly. In addition, JLS is also not close to Brooklyn Basin, nearly a mile away. Unless Oakland wants to extend a streetcar to Fifth Ave, there is no good transit option there.
A spur may at first sound like a very limited-purpose, “selfish” option. Taken within the fabric of how transit is being developed in Oakland, it actually makes sense. It provides fast, direct access to JLS. It acts as a first step towards a BART tunnel to Alameda, if Alameda actually wants it badly enough. It eliminates the looming redundance and inefficiency that comes with having streetcars, BRT, regular buses, and normal traffic on Oakland’s dieting streets.
Planning an effective transit strategy for a ballpark will come down to priorities at Oakland City Hall. If they prioritize the needs of users (quick and easy transfers, high capacity) a spur is the best solution. If the goal is to better connect neighborhoods and have lower capital cost (not sure how much lower), a streetcar is a better solution, though it will be slower and less efficient. It’s up to you, Oakland.