And why did Sound Transit stop using human names for its tunnel-boring machines? We also have some answers about those high-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-5.

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Readers’ questions have flooded Traffic Lab’s email inbox since last week’s launch of a Q&A column to spotlight what people want to know about the region’s transportation system. We’ll feature more in coming weeks.

Here’s what readers asked us recently:


Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

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Q: Has there been any discussion of revitalizing the George Benson Waterfront Streetcars?

— Mark Russo, Queen Anne

A: Dedicated fans of the five vintage streetcars, which carried passengers between Pier 70 and the Chinatown International District for 23 years beginning in 1982, launched a two-year fundraising project last year to generate money for retrofitting two of them.

The Benson line is part of Seattle’s storied streetcar history that spans more than a century.

The group, called Friends of the Benson Trolleys, hopes to one day get two of the cars back in service to run along with the city’s modern streetcars on the future First Avenue line.

But for now, potentially pending the outcome of that effort, those streetcars remain in storage, where they’ve sat for more than a decade.

Three others were sold to the city of St. Louis for $200,000 to be used on the Delmar Loop Trolley, a 2.2-mile line in the Missouri city. That deal finalized last year.

Painted green and cream, the Benson streetcars were a signature success of the late City Councilmember George Benson, built with Tasmanian mahogany, white ash and brass hardware interiors, capturing what has been described as “the elegance of travel in a bygone era.”

Benson traveled to Melbourne, Australia, in the late 1970s to find the cars, which date to the 1920s.

In 2004, the last full year of service for the line, the Benson streetcars carried roughly 400,000 passengers in Seattle, according to the National Transit Database, which averages to roughly 1,100 people per day.

Officials suspended the waterfront line because the streetcars’ maintenance barn was to be demolished to make way for the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park.

After that, officials mulled various proposals to bring the streetcars back.

According to Metro Transit, those plans never came to fruition due to a lack of funding, as well as the construction to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and plans to redesign the city’s waterfront.


Q: Since the transit tunnel from Westlake Station to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington — where drills named after famous huskies, Togo and Balto, were used — why has Sound Transit stopped nicknaming tunnel drills after people and animals?

— Julie Aune, Lynnwood

A: According to Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason, the answer is simple: Human names proved too confusing.

She wrote in an email:

“For the layperson — as well as some of us non-construction staff — it was harder to keep track of which tunnel-boring machine was mining which tunnel when people names were used.”

That confusion became especially clear during the dig to build the Northgate extension, a route that stretches from Northgate to Husky Stadium, which involved two tunnel-boring machines going at the same time near each other.

Originally, Sound Transit called the machines “Brenda” and “Pamela,” named after the wives of two managers working for the project’s contractor. But the agency switched the names last year to “tunnel-boring machine 1” and “tunnel-boring machine 2,” respectively, to avoid any mix-up.

Specifically, people were confusing Sound Transit’s “Brenda” with WSDOT’s “Bertha,” the biggest-ever boring machine that’s working on the state agency’s Highway 99 replacement project.

Sound Transit executives, including CEO Peter Rogoff, were involved in the name change. “

We opted for something that was immediately clear,” Reason said in the email.

Digging for the Northgate extension began in mid-2014. The 4.3-mile corridor is scheduled to open in September 2021.


Q: Why not extend the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on I-5 to the first exit in Marysville, at least during rush hours?

— Robert Affleck, West Seattle

A: Twenty-four-hour HOV lanes, as part of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) HOV system to increase highway capacity, extend on northbound Interstate 5 to Highway 2 in Everett.

Then, the roughly six-mile stretch to Marysville is just three general-purpose lanes.

That’s the only space available for a potential HOV lane right now, said Mark Leth, WSDOT assistant regional administrator. And by converting one of those lanes into a carpool lane, congestion would actually increase.

Engineers believe that’s the case because the HOV lane between Highway 526 and Highway 2, right before the stretch in question, carries an average of 500 to 700 fewer vehicles per hour than regular lanes during the afternoon commute, according to WSDOT engineers.

But the transportation agency has a different plan to alleviate congestion there.

Leth said WSDOT later this year will start design work for a project that would add a shoulder lane on the freeway’s right side between Everett and the Highway 529 interchange, just south of Marysville. Officials hope to start construction in 2019, WSDOT spokeswoman Nicole Daniels said.

That work would be part of a project to rebuild the 529 interchange, adding a northbound exit ramp and southbound entrance ramp. It’s part of what’s called Connecting Washington, a 16-year, $16 billion transportation-improvement plan funded primarily through the gas-tax increase approved in 2015.


Got a question? Send it to, and we may feature it an upcoming column. Safe travels.