Heading to lunch, a group of downtown employees chose to ride in style, on a purple South Lake Union streetcar. Jane Nelson fed a colleague's...

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Heading to lunch, a group of downtown employees chose to ride in style, on a purple South Lake Union streetcar.

Jane Nelson fed a colleague’s $10 bill into the ticket machine aboard the moving train, then tried not to topple, as she passed proof-of-payment slips to the others, in a human chain. “Did we look like we knew what we were doing?” she asked. They managed to finish just before the one-mile ride ended.

Seattle could use a few hundred thousand more customers like these.

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Streetcar use has lulled since December, when the novelty factor, holiday shoppers and free rides kept the trains full throughout the opening month.

Six months into the city’s streetcar revival, a chasm exists between backers such as Mayor Greg Nickels, who says the line is exceeding expectations, and a common public perception that the streetcars look empty.

In fact, ridership is almost exactly where the city predicted it would be the first year — about 1,000 average daily trips, based on logs by streetcar drivers. Sounds high, but it breaks down to eight riders per one-way trip. Since some people get off partway, five or six typically are aboard.

During a recent midday stretch, six to 22 people were aboard the streetcar during a 2 ½-hour period, while a rush-hour sampling found 20 to 30 riders.

And passengers like Nelson, who pay cash for the $1.75 adult ticket, are even fewer. Ticket sales cover 5 percent of the estimated $2.1 million annual operating cost, mainly because the overwhelming majority of riders use King County Metro Transit passes.

Even after crediting the streetcar with a share of pass sales, passengers still cover only about 14 percent of operations, compared with 22 percent for the countywide bus system. (Cash fares on Metro buses cover 6 percent of operating costs.)

“That is not, obviously, a stellar performance from a financial viewpoint, but it’s also the first year,” said Jim Jacobson, deputy general manager for Metro, which operates the city-owned streetcar line. He said ridership will grow as the neighborhood develops and more trains are added.

Then again, the point of the $52 million line never was to break even, but to promote housing density and business growth.

Other trends look more positive. After a rainy beginning to 2008, daily trips ought to surpass the 1,000 mark soon. Summer tourists, attracted in part by the new Lake Union Park, are likely to pay cash instead of using passes.

Sponsorships and a federal grant do help with operating costs, but taxpayers foot most of the bill.

Summer riders will find the trains are quicker, and less prone to stalls, than last December.

“It’s clean. It’s air-conditioned. It’s roomy,” Nelson said.

Ticket machines that didn’t work in January are fixed. But how to pay remains confusing.

On the trains, the orange-trimmed ticket machines take only cash, no plastic. On the sidewalk, a set of four machines takes only plastic, no cash.

Trains sometimes wait for visitors as they fumble with the outdoor machines, not knowing they can pay onboard, said Christine Rimorin, a daily commuter who suggests making rides free.

Two people, in a group of five headed to lunch, held cash in their fists, thinking a Metro inspector would collect fares. One person eventually bought a ticket from the machine; another didn’t.

One woman didn’t because she thought her ride would be free since she boarded in the downtown zone that’s sometimes free for buses.

Another repeatedly flattened her dollar bill, but the machine repeatedly spit it back, and she gave up. “Please eat my money,” pleaded a business visitor from England, until the machine finally accepted.

Esther Franada of Kent tried the streetcar on her first day of work in South Lake Union. She tried in vain to buy a ticket. She didn’t need to — she had a Metro pass.

Only 1 to 2 percent of riders evade paying the fare, Jacobson said. Spot-checks are sporadic, but are supposed to increase this summer.

“I think I’ve been checked twice,” rider Jeff Whiteaker said. “It would be pretty easy to cheat.”

Jacobson said officials still are considering what payment methods work best. “Our intent is to continue to experiment with these things,” he said.

Catching up

Seattle is far behind Portland, whose first line surpassed 4,000 weekday rides within six months of starting service in 2001, and has since expanded. Sound Transit’s free Tacoma Link, which opened in 2003, averages 2,925 trips per weekday.

Kevin Phelps, a former Sound Transit board member from Tacoma, said officials wanted to encourage people to try mass transit as part of a regional system that included buses and trains. Phelps said Seattle should consider free rides.

“What if they could triple or quadruple their ridership?” he said. “I think it does a lot of damage to the overall image of mass transit, when you have a lot of unused capacity going back and forth.”

Seattle is banking on the arrival of new employers such as Amazon.com and UW Medicine, along with new condos, to boost ridership.

Consultants predict it will triple by 2020, and city transportation officials this month presented their ideas for four new streetcar lines to run between Queen Anne and the Central Area, between Ballard and Fremont, between South Lake Union and the University District, and between Capitol Hill and First Hill.

The city’s streetcar project manager, Ethan Melone, says his first step is to make streetcars a fixture in South Lake Union. Ridership then will increase.

“I think what we are trying to do is provide a reliable level of service,” he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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