The first occasional road and sidewalk closures start in early January for Seattle’s future First Avenue streetcar — a low-profile but high-impact project linking the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars.

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Work on the future First Avenue streetcar will start next month in downtown Seattle, a $135 million project that will link the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar routes.

Test drilling will be the first task, to confirm the location of underground utilities, some of which were installed a century ago. Major construction begins this summer, with utility relocations that will block streets.

The Center City Connector project — to be completed in 2020 — will create dedicated streetcar lanes, meaning traffic won’t slow transit trips. To make room, 194 parking spaces, mainly used in off-peak hours on First Avenue, will be removed.

The streetcar network will consist of two parts. The South Lake Union line will run from Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to Chinatown International District. From the other end, the First Hill Streetcar will leave Capitol Hill Station and wind through Pioneer Square, then north to Westlake Avenue North and Republican Street. In the downtown core, streetcars will arrive every five minutes.

Residents might not have known the project was a done deal, even after the city won a $75 million federal grant.

The City Council, which last decade exuberantly proposed a five-train network, has new members and a low-key attitude these days. The council chose a route in mid-2014, followed by open-house meetings, but members never held a gala event with speeches to promote the project.

Streetcars have been a lightning rod for controversy, due to project delays, bailout loans, or trains stuck in traffic. Merchants on north Broadway withdrew their support for the current plan for a half-mile streetcar extension, which would tear up the road and hamper traffic, the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog reported this month.

On the positive side, the new First Hill line serves roughly 3,300 riders a day, meeting its near-term goals. Ridership on the South Lake Union line increased this fall to 3,600 daily passengers, after falling below 2,500 a couple of years ago, the latest Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) figures say. Besides soaring growth in SLU employment, that streetcar has benefited from new transit-only lanes striped into Westlake Avenue North.

SDOT estimates the South Lake Union, First Avenue and First Hill system will carry 20,000 daily riders in 2020, the new line’s opening year.

But first, people in January must cope with traffic and sidewalk detours; noise and trucks between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays, and until 5 p.m. weekends; and temporary parking restrictions. Work will focus on Stewart Street near McGraw Square Plaza, First Avenue between Union and Stewart streets, and the Westlake Avenue North and Republican Street intersections.

The most intense construction can be expected in 2018. After the line opens, car traffic is forecast to decline and buses will be rerouted — though SDOT says more people will use First Avenue overall, because of trains.

The $60 million local share of construction is to be covered through bond sales, utility bills and a tiny slice of the city’s $60 car-tab fee for transit.

The whole streetcar network would cost $15 million a year to operate, with fares paying half and the rest funded by grants and sponsorships. Some streetcar critics, including retired Councilmember Nick Licata, have stressed that electric trolleybuses can cover the same territory for far less cost.

Streetcars fit Mayor Ed Murray’s overall philosophy, passed along from his predecessor Mike McGinn, to nudge people away from driving toward more transit, walking and bicycling, in one of the nation’s more crowded downtowns.


Correction: Information in this article, originally published Dec. 29, 2016, was corrected Dec. 31. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that some of the streetcar funding would come from the $60 car-tab fee for transit. The city’s website for the project included incorrect information.