If seattle is to embrace the streetcar as a means of transportation in our center city, we need a well-planned system, not a temporary fix...
IF Seattle is to embrace the streetcar as a means of transportation in our center city, we need a well-planned system, not a temporary fix.
While theoretically generous upon first glance, the Port of Seattle’s offer to extend the waterfront trolley to a new maintenance barn north of Myrtle Edwards Park is ultimately a shortsighted and wasteful proposal. The idea of a streetcar barn in Pioneer Square, announced Monday by King County Executive Ron Sims and Mayor Greg Nickels, is better, but still not fully formed.
Both look only at a limited issue, not the larger view. The wisest investment of our tax dollars would be in an overall system that realigns the waterfront trolley — not so that it is cut off from Seattle’s neighborhoods, as it would be if extended north of the forthcoming Olympic Sculpture Park, but so that it links with the proposed South Lake Union streetcar in a center-city streetcar loop.
Critics may say that Seattle’s hilly landscape prevents us from joining the various streetcar lines. If that is truly the case, then we should seriously reconsider our interest in trolleys for transit.
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Fortunately, a streetcar technology exists that can climb Seattle’s hilly streets.
Recently, Vancouver, B.C., looked at transit alternatives and compared two similar streetcar systems: the traditional steel-wheeled trolley and a rubber-wheeled alternative called guided light transit (GLT). They found that both offered similar performance, but GLT cost 50 to 60 percent less to build. GLT has the same look and feel as a modern streetcar but uses only one steel rail to guide the train and can use bus facilities for repairs.
Saving money isn’t the only advantage of GLT; the rubber wheels allow the trolleys to climb hills twice as steep as their steel-wheeled cousins.
With these insights, the debate about the waterfront trolley’s fate can and must shift from the location of the maintenance barn to a holistic vision for Seattle’s future streetcar system.
Here is our four-phase proposal for a modern center-city streetcar loop that meets the needs of more people per dollar spent.
Phase 1: Move the waterfront trolley to Western Avenue, and relocate the maintenance barn south.
In order to avoid the elimination of trolley service while the Alaskan Way Viaduct is replaced, the city of Seattle, Metro and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) should work together to immediately fund moving the trolley to Western, and connect it with the Metro base in Sodo to share maintenance facilities. The Sims-Nickels proposal to build a facility at South Main Street and Occidental Avenue South might also solve the barn issue. Regardless, moving the trolley now will save WSDOT the inflated cost of replacing it in 2015 or later.
On Western, the streetcar could stop at the base of Harbor Steps, the waterfront’s link to the University Street “cultural corridor,” which includes the Seattle Art Museum, Benaroya Hall and the 5th Avenue Theatre. Further north, the streetcar would also serve Pike Place Market at Victor Steinbrueck Park, the Belltown neighborhood, and the front gate of the sculpture park itself. The northern waterfront would be serviced by streetcar stops in Belltown near the Lenora Street and the Pier 66 sky bridges.
Phase 2: Extend the waterfront streetcar to South Lake Union.
Extending the streetcar to Uptown via Western and Elliott avenues would connect the system to all three major sports venues, the monorail, Seattle Center’s Mercer Street theater district and another major residential neighborhood.
The system should then turn east along Mercer or Broad streets to South Lake Union, linking the waterfront to South Lake Union. This would allow for the relocated waterfront streetcar and the South Lake Union streetcar to share maintenance facilities south of downtown, instead of duplicating them. The money saved could substantially pay for this phase.
Phase 3: The South Lake Union streetcar.
As proposed, the $47 million South Lake Union streetcar will extend from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center facilities to Westlake Center, where light rail will meet monorail and buses. This project has already raised all but $6 million. The savings obtained by using the rubber-wheeled streetcar may well be enough to pay for the balance of Phases 2 and 3.
Phase 4: Close the loop.
By connecting the two ends of the system using Third, Fourth or Fifth avenues, the streetcar would effectively service the retail, entertainment, hotel, convention, office and governmental core of the city on its way to the International District and beyond. With the tax base of this downtown segment, a local improvement district like the one in South Lake Union could easily finance the route.
After the loop is closed, outlying neighborhoods inevitably will want to be linked to the system. With GLT’s superior climbing ability, these connections will be easier to make.
So let’s be smart and do this right. A center-city streetcar loop will serve the most people per dollar invested. Rubber-wheeled streetcars are a better fit for our terrain. And, we can create the funding if we build a system, not just fix a problem.
Brian Steinburg, left, is a board member of Action: Better City, a nonprofit organization working to create more-livable communities. David Yeaworth, right, is executive director of Allied Arts, which advocates on arts, urban design and quality-of-life issues.