Long delayed, Seattle’s First Hill Streetcar will start service Saturday. Rides on the 2.5-mile route will be free over the weekend and beyond.

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Seattle’s long-awaited First Hill Streetcar, proposed a decade ago, will finally carry passengers Saturday in a casual “soft launch” featuring free rides.

Service begins on the 2.5-mile line shortly after 11 a.m., said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

A grand-opening ceremony, to include performances and neighborhood festivals, will be announced later.

“We just want to make sure everything runs smoothly, before the grand opening,” Sheridan said.

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The low-key approach suits a line whose expectations were dampened by two years of delay, as well as anxiety over whether trains will get stuck in worsening traffic.

A few years ago, the City Council was in the grasp of streetcar fever. The song “Love Train” greeted riders the day the South Lake Union (SLU) line opened in 2007, followed the next year by the City Council’s approval of an unfunded $685 million crosstown plan and five-route map.

The mission of this streetcar has never been entirely clear — or maybe it serves a rainbow of purposes.

The project was first devised as an alternative to a deep-underground light-rail stop on First Hill, which Sound Transit canceled in 2005 because it was judged to be too expensive and risky.

Voters approved the $135 million streetcar project within the massive “ST2” regional ballot measure in 2008.

Sound Transit outsourced the design to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). The city added a Broadway bicycle lane, reacting to bicycle crashes during the SLU startup. SDOT positioned the train tracks among cars in the general lanes — with a travel time of 18 minutes end-to-end.

The process raises questions about whether Sound Transit compromised its state mandate to supply “high capacity transit,”which runs chiefly in its own right of way. Agency leaders have replied that the streetcar will support its huge light-rail system by feeding passengers to two stations. The line connects the future Capitol Hill light-rail station to the International District/Chinatown Station, passing through Broadway, South Jackson Street and reaching Pioneer Square.

Even Mayor Ed Murray has said putting cars, buses, bikes and the streetcar all in the same roadway isn’t ideal, and the City Council resolved to give any future streetcar on First Avenue dedicated transit lanes.

Who will be on board?

Nonetheless, the high-frequency runs in the state’s most densely populated area ought to fuel demand.

Will commuters hop a streetcar to cover the last several blocks between a light-rail station and their jobs at hospitals or Seattle University? Or will they just ride a trolley bus uphill from downtown?

Will waterfront tourists venture aboard a train to Asian restaurants or the Dick’s burger joint on Capitol Hill? Will neighbors hop the streetcar between shops, or will it be faster to walk?

The First Hill line is projected to carry 3,000 to 3,500 passengers a day. But whether it will actually ease Seattle’s mobility crisis remains a mystery to be resolved in the next few months.

Trains are scheduled to arrive every 10 minutes at peak, every 12 minutes midday, and 18 minutes apart at night.

Free rides will continue through the weekend and for many days afterward, Sheridan said.

A similar free-ride promotion drew more than 3,900 people a day for three weeks in December 2007 when the SLU line opened during the holiday shopping season. It currently carries around 2,700 on weekdays, losing hundreds who find it quicker to walk.

There’s a “palpable excitement” among neighbors to see how well the First Hill line works, said Michael Wells, past executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s been a long road, and people are happy to finally see it arrive,” he said.

He mentioned what supporters have been talking about: a Transit Spring, with the streetcar, added bus service, transit lanes on Westlake Avenue North, and Sound Transit’s light-rail tunnel to the University of Washington all to operate by March.

“There’s going to be enormous change coming to Broadway,” he predicted, citing Sound Transit estimates that 14,000 people a day will be boarding light-rail trains there by 2030.

Future connections

Service was to start in 2014, but train supplier Inekon, based in the Czech Republic, fell behind on its manufacturing schedule. Seattle presented challenges because of its pioneering technology, to allow the trains to retract their overhead power poles and use battery power, avoiding conflicts with existing trolley bus wires.

The city has predicted a possible $1.6 million in cost overruns related to delays, on top of the city’s $2.5 million share of the project’s overall price. Seattle is pursuing penalties against Inekon.

Besides getting stuck in traffic, the new streetcar is vulnerable to being blocked by delivery trucks or badly parked cars.

Wells said drivers already were switching to nearby 12th Avenue instead of Broadway while the trains made test runs.

SDOT this month removed its humble blue bollards, shaped like noodles, that divided the Broadway bike lane from parked cars. Those will be replaced with plastic posts, Sheridan said. The agency is studying stronger bike-lane protections, such as concrete boxes with shrubbery, for use around the city, he said.

A proposed extension from the light-rail station to Roy Street is in final design, SDOT says.

Long-term plans call for a Center City Connector streetcar, mainly on First Avenue from Westlake Center to Pioneer Square — and linking the SLU and First Hill lines. But the City Council didn’t earmark construction money in the recently approved $930 million Move Seattle property-tax levy.

Fares are $2.25 for adults, a quarter less than basic bus fare. Youth will pay $1.50, and seniors and those with disabilities $1. The discounted $1.50 ORCA Lift fare, for low-income households, includes city streetcars.