Construction on the $134 million First Hill Streetcar line is to begin this month, with service expected to start in early 2014.
Before Seattle-area politicians knew better, Sound Transit promised voters in 1996 an underground station at First Hill, where riders could take an elevator 200 feet down to catch a regional light-rail train.
Then after studying the sliding soils on nearby Beacon Hill, transit officials realized that despite the value of putting a train stop in one of the city’s biggest employment centers, it would be prohibitively expensive and risky to mine a deep vertical shaft among the high-rises of First Hill.
Sound Transit apologetically canceled the station in 2005 and in its place proposed a streetcar line to serve First Hill, without securing the money.
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Now that voters have approved the funds — a near footnote in the $18 billion Sound Transit 2 plan of 2008, funded by higher sales taxes — construction on the $134 million streetcar line is to begin this month. Service is expected to start in early 2014.
There will be fewer lanes for car traffic and a loss of parking. On the other hand, the line will mean more-frequent transit, and a huge gain for bicyclists. Along much of the route, the streetcar will share a traffic lane with cars, as in many cities.
Despite its origins as a consolation prize, the 2 ½-mile project has become a magnet for great expectations, beyond just moving people through the state’s most densely populated corridor.
The First Hill Streetcar, running mainly down Broadway, Yesler Way and South Jackson Street, is expected to:
• Attract more cyclists by creating a mile of bike lane, called a cycle track, separate from cars.
• Launch a homegrown train-building industry, when Pacifica Marine in South Seattle assembles six Czech-designed trains and tries to sign streetcar deals with other cities.
• Promote new technology using rechargeable batteries, not overhead wires, to power its southbound downhill trip.
• Preserve retail and tourist commerce in historic Pioneer Square, by going a few extra blocks west.
• Reach thousands of new housing units proposed in a rebuild of Yesler Terrace.
• Connect to a possible future streetcar downtown.
State’s densest neighborhood
Can a project work this many miracles?
Its main purpose is to move people — ultimately 3,000 to 3,500 a day in a 2007 Sound Transit estimate, and the Seattle Department of Transportation has conjectured the count could go twice that high. By comparison, the South Lake Union streetcar carried 2,500 average weekday riders last month.
The route will connect two light-rail stations: the existing International District/Chinatown Station and the Capitol Hill Station, to open in 2016. Near the line are Swedish, Harborview and Virginia Mason medical centers, Seattle Central Community College, Seattle University and O’Dea High School.
Skeptics argue that these places can be served by existing or enhanced bus lines, which are less expensive and can tackle steep hills directly to downtown.
Jack Whisner, a King County Metro planner speaking only for himself, suggested in a 2010 letter to Mayor Mike McGinn, that a new trolley-bus route be created on Yesler Way to Harborview.
Trolley-buses, powered by overhead electrical wires, are better for short hops and hill-climbing, while rail should be deployed for longer routes at quicker speeds, he argued in the letter, published in Seattle Met magazine.
“Right now, Seattle’s just building short, slow, ineffective streetcar lines that are not providing much transit advantage,” Whisner said in an interview last week. Supporters say the streetcar will serve a new north-south corridor that is underserved by buses, and will attract tourists.
“There will be people who ride a streetcar who won’t ride a bus,” says Michael Wells, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce.
Some of them work at Swedish, where close to half the 7,000 employees drive to work. A streetcar will entice many out of their cars, said Sherry Williams, community-affairs director at Swedish.
She predicts that employees who live south of downtown will drop pricey First Hill garages, and instead find parking near a light-rail or Sounder station, hop the train, then transfer to the streetcar at King Street Station.
The project’s most novel feature is a 10-foot wide, two-way bike lane on Broadway, separated from cars by curbs and artistic bollards.
City-published animations underscore how this is a cycling project, as well as a transit project. Bicycles will often move faster than streetcars and motor vehicles. Seattle’s policy of “complete streets” instructs the city to accommodate all modes of travel in road rebuilds.
Ethan Melone, streetcar project director for the Seattle Department of Transportation, says the bikeway is two feet wider than a pair of less safe 5-foot bike lanes that are often incorporated into road projects.
SDOT’s efforts at bike-friendly design are partly a reaction to its early experience with the South Lake Union line, where bicyclists crashed by getting their tires stuck in the rails. Where bicyclists gain space, car drivers will lose some.
Street parking will be reduced 40 percent overall, said SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan.
In several places, four car lanes of Broadway are being reduced to two lanes, for instance near Madison Street. Streetcars and automobiles will occupy the same lanes there, as well as on South Jackson Street, which will retain four lanes.
Streetcars are likely to get stuck in traffic, one reason the city predicts an 18-minute trip end to end. The city probably saved minutes by rejecting a route option on Boren Avenue, which, on many afternoons, is clogged by overflow traffic heading toward Interstate 5.
Streetcars and motorists alike could face delays where turning vehicles stop for cyclists and pedestrians at intersections, for instance near the community college. But SDOT hopes to minimize the bottlenecks in other hot spots, such as Broadway to westbound James Street, with right-turn lanes that make room for drivers going straight.
Melone notes that very few passengers will ride the entire 18-minute length of the route — more likely they’re going partway, from either of the two light-rail hubs.
Streetcars will arrive every 10 minutes, a frequency aimed at taking some edge off their slow pace.
Even backer Wells wonders how the mixture of sidewalks, bike tracks, parking spots, streetcars and automobiles will work: “Quite honestly, I’m still having a hard time seeing how all those will fit on the street.”
In a short segment on 14th Avenue, trains will run behind Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, where parent Heather Ayres said the city needs to wage a huge, multilanguage safety campaign.
“It feels as though a very high-density traffic area is going to become more dense with traffic, unless they take certain measures,” she said.
Another challenge, many years away, is a mixed-use redevelopment of Yesler Terrace, bringing eight-story buildings and up to 4,500 parking spaces, and related traffic, into an area already near saturation. On the other hand, thousands of newcomers would be next to a streetcar stop.
Aloha for streetcars
Backers say odds are improving for a $30 million extension a half-mile north to Aloha Street, so tracks can reach the entire Broadway small-business district, a few years after the initial line opens.
That’s despite voter rejection of a car-tab fee last fall that included $18 million toward citywide streetcar design and possibly construction. The Federal Transit Administration shares the streetcar fervor of Seattle’s elected officials, and even awarded $900,000 to plan a downtown line, alongside $2 million in Sound Transit funds to plan a Ballard line.
And a proposed federal rule change this year would increase the chances of small streetcar extensions to win FTA’s multimillion-dollar construction grants — because, it is argued, streetcars can feed economic growth and add riders to a larger transit network.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom.