Seattle officials appear ready to approve a First Hill streetcar that rolls straight down Broadway, when the line opens in late 2013.

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Seattle officials appear ready to approve a First Hill streetcar that rolls down Broadway, when the line opens in late 2013.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) endorsed the cheapest and quickest of the alternatives, and did so in only 16 months after voters approved the $130 million project.

Mayor Mike McGinn is to issue his proposal this week, followed by a City Council vote this spring.

The streetcar is a small part of the $18 billion Sound Transit expansion measure that passed in 2008. Transit leaders two decades ago pledged an underground light-rail station for First Hill but later learned it would be unaffordable. The streetcar is a sort of consolation prize.

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Nonetheless, the route linking the International District/Chinatown light-rail station to the future Capitol Hill Station serves potentially high ridership — whisking people to Seattle Central Community College, Swedish Medical Center, Seattle University and shops at “Little Saigon” and South Jackson Street. Harborview and Virginia Mason medical centers and O’Dea High School are a few blocks west of Broadway. In addition, a short loop in the route reaches the Pioneer Square historic district.

Construction is to begin next year, said Rick Sheridan, SDOT spokesman. The streetcars would be similar to those used on the city-owned South Lake Union line.

Sound Transit, which hired the city as its contractor, requires that First Hill trains arrive every 10 minutes. That’s more frequent than the city’s current 15-minute standard at South Lake Union.

Streetcar planning largely has escaped public notice, overshadowed by rancor over the Highway 520 bridge replacement and the Highway 99 tunnel.

At ground level, however, an energetic debate over route choices has been under way.

The big question is the purpose of streetcars: Should they serve existing transit demand, or promote transit-friendly dense development?

Eight routes were studied before SDOT recommended last month that the streetcars run along Broadway in both directions. But two other choices still have supporters:

• A route that swings partly along Boren Avenue, directly serving Virginia Mason Medical Center’s 3,700 employees, as well as huge senior-housing complexes west of Boren.

“You’ve got to get back to fundamentals, which is the streetcar was a circulating transit system that was going to replace the light-rail station on First Hill,” said Fred Savaglio, a Virginia Mason program director.

Although a hospital manager lobbied City Council member Sally Bagshaw on Friday, Savaglio said hope is slipping away for this route, and Virginia Mason will “move on” to other transit ideas, such as later service hours for its employee buses.

• A route with northbound track on Broadway and southbound track on 12th Avenue, the back side of First Hill. Trains there would promote housing and business growth immediately southeast of Seattle University.

Such a strategy recalls growth in South Lake Union, where the city was willing to cheerlead for streetcars that now average only eight or nine riders a trip, with the promise of a boom when more biotech firms, Amazon.com and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation arrive soon.

Seattle University has created attractive campus entries along 12th Avenue, while King County’s juvenile-justice complex south of Seattle U is poised to be redeveloped.

“If we’re building a streetcar as a 50- or 100-year investment, we need to be thinking about the future destinations,” said Kate Stineback, of the group 12th Avenue Stewardship.

However, the city analysis found many advantages to Broadway — not least of which is a simple, easy-to-find route.

Construction appeared the cheapest at $122 million to $125 million, travel time was the best at 16 minutes each way, and the route would not disrupt bicycle routes or require major rebuilding of utility lines, SDOT says. Ridership would be estimated at 6,000 to 9,000 per day at the outset, about 1,000 less than the route near Boren.

Traffic congestion on Boren also was a deterrent to routes there, streetcar project director Ethan Melone said on the city-owned Seattle Channel. But Broadway will be a challenge, too, at the congested north terminus where Denny and John streets crisscross Broadway.

“Everybody wants it to come to their front door,” Melone said. “But we’re going to make someone unhappy.”

Seattle U favored the 12th Avenue version but is fine with the city’s Broadway preference, spokesman Casey Corr said. The campus serves about 8,700 students, faculty and staff.

“We can’t wait to use it,” he said.

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