SANTA CLARA -- After getting an earful from frustrated fans during the opening Levi's Stadium event two weeks ago, the 49ers and their partners are rolling out a new-and-improved plan to accommodate even bigger crowds during the first Niners game in Santa Clara on Sunday.
It will be a crucial test for the team and local officials who are looking -- before the regular season starts next month -- to ease the traffic jams, parking confusion and hour-plus waits for trains that many fans endured during the $1.3 billion stadium's debut before a smaller soccer crowd.
This time, more parking lots will be available and more lanes will be open on key roads, while traffic signals have been fine-tuned. The Valley Transportation Authority, which got hammered for long post-game waits, will be lining up extra light rail trains and launching more bus routes. And after confiscating a record number of purses two weeks ago, the 49ers have ordered half a million NFL-approved bags to hand out to fans this season.
"We're not resting on our laurels and thinking these fixes will be the end-all, be-all, but I think it should help quite a bit," said Jim Mercurio, the 49ers vice president of stadium operations and security.
Mercurio has been leading a team that includes the VTA, the Santa Clara Police Department, city traffic engineers and private vendors such as the stadium concessionaire to pinpoint everything that went wrong during the stadium's first sporting event, on Aug. 2. Many of the 48,000 fans who watched the San Jose Earthquakes soccer match also complained of sold-out concessions, slow WiFi, poorly informed employees and a host of other problems.
But the soft opening was always meant as a practice to prepare for 49ers crowds. The Niners host their first Levi's game Sunday at 1 p.m., in front of a sold-out crowd of about 70,000 people for a preseason exhibition against the Denver Broncos. The stadium will host a second preseason game the following Sunday, before its regular season debut on Sept. 14.
Perhaps the group that took the most criticism during the Earthquakes game was the VTA, which took an hour and a half to load 9,000 people -- or 19 percent of attendees -- onto post-game trains, and then up to another hour to get them to their original station.
"They need to do something if they want me back on the train," said fan Linda Ramos, who took VTA from her South San Jose home to the soccer game.
The agency promises help is on the way. This week, it's finishing a months-long $14 million project to build extra tracks outside the stadium to store three additional post-game trains that can take 1,350 riders home and increase service frequency. VTA is also adding some pre-game trains, increasing the bus routes serving the stadium from five to six and launching new buses that will run along the light rail route to supplement packed trains.
"This," VTA spokeswoman Colleen Valles said, "should help us carry more people from the stadium, thus reducing wait times for riders post-game."
Also serving the stadium for the first time Sunday will be the Altamont Corridor Express and Capitol Corridor train lines from the East Bay, and charter buses coming from throughout the region, though those services will each carry a small number of riders.
It's unclear if the boost in transit service will offset the 40 percent increase in fans expected Sunday, compared to the Earthquakes game.
Traffic planners face the same issue, but Mercurio noted they'll have the massive Great America lot adjacent to the stadium open for the first time, which should spread out vehicle flow. The amusement park will be closed Sunday and during all 49ers games, but was open during the Earthquakes match, pulling in about 30,000 people.
The team is also adding more portable traffic signs to assist confused riders. The completion of the VTA project will allow officials to open an extra traffic lane on Tasman Drive just outside the stadium, while more staffing will allow them to open another lane on Tasman north of the stadium. More police will be added to key intersections that turned out to be unexpected trouble spots two weeks ago. Live traffic camera feeds for 16 intersections have now been posted online at the police department website.
"It's not going to take two hours to get out of this place like it did at Candlestick," Mercurio said. "But it could take an hour and a half? I don't know."
And officials are hoping that the crowd of mostly 49ers season-ticket holders will rely more on the custom traffic directions the team provided to fans going to each of the two-dozen lots near the stadium, which many Earthquakes fans apparently ignored.
"Folks weren't following the directions that we laid out," causing them to hit roadblocks and get lost, said police Lt. Kurt Clarke. This time, 12,500 fans have bought pre-paid parking spots that include turn-by-turn directions based on where they're coming from, compared to 1,000 parking passes sold for the Earthquakes game. "Once folks get used to where they have to go to park, it should go seamlessly."
Inside the stadium, the team will be better at stocking concessions that ran dry at halftime two weeks ago. Nearly 5,000 stadium employees, who were friendly but often uninformed last time, completed a stadium scavenger hunt to better learn where various amenities are located. And now all cellphone network companies have completed installation of new antennas.
But stadium officials cautioned the faithful should expect even more fixes after the game.
"We're hopeful we're going to shine," Mercurio said, "but we don't anticipate we're going to be perfect."