The Seattle City Council will consider Monday whether to support an expansion of the city's streetcar line.
Seattle’s future streetcar network is taking shape on paper, but in the City Council chambers two factions are headed in opposite directions.
A majority of the council’s transportation committee said Tuesday they support a sprawling, interconnected network of streetcar lines that would serve Ballard, the University District, Capitol Hill, the Chinatown International District and the downtown waterfront. The idea began to take shape earlier this year, just months after the debut of the new South Lake Union streetcar.
Councilmember Sally Clark described the city as “opportunists,” willing to build future lines when money becomes available.
Yet others on the council remain unconvinced, and so far oppose the whole concept.
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The division reveals a political crossroad as Seattle tries to split its resources among expanding transit choices.
The full City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on competing resolutions: one against moving forward; the other in favor of it, although it doesn’t set any timelines for construction — it’s more conceptual.
Those who question the idea, including council members Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen, say they simply don’t have enough detailed information to support building more streetcar lines.
“It raises expectations, and it sets us down a road that we don’t have any guideposts for,” Licata said.
Mayor Greg Nickels has been an ardent supporter of streetcars, and he pushed hard to get the line built in South Lake Union, just as the neighborhood itself underwent a major face-lift.
The whole notion of streetcars in Seattle can be traced back to 1889. The electric cars once threaded the city, but as cars and buses took over the streets, the tracks eventually were abandoned in 1941 and the rails sold for scrap.
In February, the Seattle City Council, knowing the mayor wanted to expand the South Lake Union line, asked for more facts: what would a bigger system cost, how would it be funded, how it would affect bus service and future development. At that point, the $50 million, 1.3-mile South Lake Union line was just two months old, and it still wasn’t clear whether it would attract a regular ridership.
It apparently did, and city transportation planners now say it exceeded their preliminary ridership estimate. By the streetcar’s anniversary Dec. 12, it will have carried roughly a half-million riders, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The initial ridership estimate for the first year was 346,000.
Asked how ridership is tracked, Ethan Melone, Seattle’s streetcar project manager, said streetcar operators keep a manual count of riders. “This is a very detailed count, not a sample.”
About 80 percent of riders use an annual Metro bus pass; the rest pay by cash, Melone said.
By May, the city’s staff released a report on how to expand the service. It mapped out $685 million worth of additional streetcar lines, drawing opposition from some on the council, including Licata, Rasmussen and Richard McIver.
The report envisioned a network of four lines:
• A waterfront line that runs an L-shaped route from 23rd Avenue East, down South Jackson Street and along the waterfront on First Avenue;
• A line across First Hill and Capitol Hill, along Broadway;
• A line from downtown, along the west side of Lake Union to Ballard; and
• A line from downtown, through Eastlake, to the University District.
The study didn’t provide a means for paying for all of it but suggested the money could be raised with a tax on local businesses or federal money could be used. About half of the South Lake Union line was funded with a tax on nearby property owners.
In November, voters approved $120 million for the First Hill streetcar line as part of Proposition 1. Construction on that is scheduled sometime between 2010-15.
Some on the council also are hopeful that the Alaskan Way Viaduct rebuild along the central waterfront will include money for a new streetcar line traversing First Avenue.
The council’s vote next week on a resolution in support of streetcars will say those two pieces of the network should be built first, and as city transportation planners sketch out the details, they should make sure the lines connect.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Clark and council members Jean Godden, Tim Burgess and committee Chairwoman Jan Drago voted for the proposal. Licata and McIver opposed it.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org