As Mayor Jenny Durkan decides whether to continue construction of the First Avenue streetcar, we look back at the history of Seattle's streetcars and the developments of the Center City Connector line.
The First Avenue streetcar line would link the city’s two existing lines and connect South Lake Union with downtown and the Chinatown International District before reaching First Hill and Capitol Hill.
At least that’s what had been planned since July 2014, when the Seattle City Council voted to put a streetcar on First Avenue.
But this March, Mayor Jenny Durkan halted the streetcar expansion and ordered an independent review of its finances and ridership projections after The Seattle Times reported that King County Metro believed costs to operate the new system could be 50 percent higher than what the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had stated.
The review, released Aug. 31, said the city’s projected operating expenses appear reasonable, but construction costs had soared to $252 million. It remains unknown whether the city will build the 1.2-mile line.
Here’s a look back on what’s called the Center City Connector, and the long, sometimes difficult history of streetcars in Seattle.
(click to jump to each era)
1884 – 1913: Streetcars launch in Seattle
1914 – 1941: Misfortunes afflict Seattle’s first streetcars
1942 – 1973: Attention shifts to the automobile
1974 – 2002: Transit returns
2003 – 2007: Streetcars are back in South Lake Union
2008 – 2016: First Hill streetcar opens
2011 – 2018: Conflict stalls the First Avenue streetcar
1884 – 1914 | Streetcars launch in Seattle
“Derailments there were almost daily occurrences as the horses, unable to check their momentum, careened at breakneck speed around the hairpin curve,” wrote historian Leslie Blanchard.
The horse-drawn streetcars, known as “hayburners,” had trouble navigating Seattle’s hills. So in 1887, cars pulled by cables running beneath the streets began traveling from Pioneer Square to Leschi Park by way of Yesler Way and Jackson Street.
Two years later, Frank Osgood, who had operated the horse-pulled line, unveiled an electric streetcar, making Seattle the first West Coast city to offer a fully electric system.
Soon, lines were built to the University District, Woodland Park and Madison Park. By 1892, some 48 miles of streetcar track and 22 miles of cable railways operated in the city.
The streetcar hype began to dwindle by World War I, and problems getting sufficient funding would frustrate politicians well into the century.
Seattle Electric was losing money due to fares capped at a nickel, strikes and growing competition from automobiles and private buses. Riders were losing tolerance with aging equipment and unpredictable service.
In an attempt to save the system, the city of Seattle, with voter approval, bought the streetcar lines for $15 million in 1918.
It turned out the city overpaid and was stuck with the debt. Despite the financial problems, the state Supreme Court blocked subsidies to the system and forced it to operate on fare revenue alone.
By 1936, the streetcar system had run up a $4 million debt and still owed half of the principal on bonds sold to buy the system. A federal government agency loaned Seattle $10 million in 1939 to pay off the debt and implement a plan to use electric, trackless trolleys and motorbuses instead of streetcars.
As automobiles and buses took over the streets, the tracks were abandoned in 1941 and the rails sold for scrap.
However, nothing transformed transportation more than the private automobile. Cars became more affordable and offered personal transportation that let people live farther from the urban core and maintain a reasonable commute time.
In 1956, Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act, which provided federal funding for 90 percent of the cost of highways crisscrossing the country.
Diesel-powered buses spread through the city and suburban areas, while in Seattle several former streetcar lines were converted to electric trolleybus routes, with rubber-tired vehicles powered by overhead wires.
Preparing for the region’s impending growth, civic leaders created a vision for the future called Forward Thrust and put initiatives, including one for a transit system, on the 1968 ballot. It was the first time in half a century that Seattle-area voters had considered a subway since a grand plan by city engineer Virgil Bogue lost in 1912.
King County voters in 1968 approved paying for highway improvements and other public amenities, but rejected a plan that would have built a 47-mile rail system. Taxpayers would have footed $385 million of the bill, with the federal government paying about $800 million.
The Forward Thrust committee made a second attempt in 1970 to rally public support for rail transit, but voters again rejected the effort.
The idea of streetcars returned in 1974 when City Councilmember George Benson proposed bringing them back. In 1982, a 1.6-mile, $3.2 million waterfront streetcar line opened along Alaskan Way, featuring vintage Australian railcars with mahogany interiors. The line was later extended a half-mile to Union Station.
In 2002, the line was renamed to bear Benson’s name. It carried summer visitors, but averaged only about 1,100 daily riders on a year-round basis. Service stopped in 2005 while other transit picked up steam.
The state Legislature in 1990 passed new laws that authorized the formation of Sound Transit, and in 1996, voters approved creating the Sound Transit system that would combine light rail, commuter rail and express buses, with funding by sales and car-tab taxes.
2003 – 2007 | Streetcars are back in South Lake Union
In 2003, Mayor Greg Nickels set his sights on revitalizing Seattle’s streetcar system. He proposed a 2.6-mile loop from South Lake Union to downtown.
The line would run between the Westin Hotel and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, mainly serving residents and workers.
Nickels thought streetcars were effective public transit and would spur economic development. Critics questioned what streetcars offered that buses didn’t, and accused Nickels of pandering to Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., a development company and major property owner in the area. Allen supported the streetcar project.
Initial estimates put the streetcar cost at $45 million to build and $1.4 million a year to operate.
Seattle City Council members pushed back, saying they couldn’t justify spending money on a streetcar given the city’s other pressing needs.
Nickels, committed to the project, detailed a finance plan that relied on $1.25 fares, federal grants and revenue from advertising and naming rights. Private-property owners near the route agreed, through a special taxing district, to pay $25.7 million — about half the construction tab.
The Seattle City Council approved the plan in 2005.
The South Lake Union Streetcar line — which ultimately cost $56.4 million, including power lines, streetlights and drainage near the tracks — opened in December 2007. That same month, Amazon.com announced it would move its corporate headquarters to South Lake Union.
In 2008, less than a year after the South Lake Union streetcar opened, the Seattle City Council’s transportation committee voted to expand the streetcar system through a linked network. The city studied four additional routes: a line along the waterfront and up South Jackson Street, a line across First Hill and Capitol Hill along Broadway, a line from downtown to Ballard, and a line downtown to the University District.
Committee members agreed the city should start with the First Hill line, which would go from the Chinatown International District light rail station to the future Capitol Hill light-rail stop, serving hospital workers as well as students from Seattle Central College and Seattle University.
The First Hill line became a sort of consolation prize after transit leaders had pledged an underground light-rail station for First Hill but later learned it would be too expensive and difficult to build. That project was canceled in 2005.
King, Pierce and Snohomish County voters in November 2008 approved $120 million for the First Hill line as part of the Sound Transit 2 tax measure. Sound Transit would also pay Seattle up to $5.2 million a year for operations.
The Seattle City Council in 2009 gave the green light to build and operate the First Hill line and in 2010 approved the mayor-recommended Broadway route with plans to complete it in 2013. Planners also added a 10-foot wide bicycle lane separated from traffic. However, the city’s design placed streetcars in general traffic lanes.
Then, the Czech-based supplier fell behind on fulfilling its order, underestimating how long it would take to design and build seven trains. It also struggled to deliver a new-generation power system that lets the First Hill trains run along part of the corridor off-wire, on batteries.
In January 2016, eight years after discussions began and three years after originally scheduled, Seattle’s First Hill streetcar opened to the public. It cost $135.5 million.
In 2011, a ballot measure to boost transit, street and bicycle-pedestrian funding also contained planning money for streetcars, including a line on First Avenue that would link the South Lake Union and First Hill lines. The measure failed, but work moved forward in 2012.
Then in 2014, the Seattle City Council pumped the brakes on the First Avenue streetcar route to ask basic questions, such as whether trolleybuses connect downtown destinations equally well and where the city would find the money for the project. They later moved ahead.
Preliminary work was set to begin in January 2017 on what’s called the Center City Connector. Later in 2017, questions about revenue and ridership projections emerged along with talk about halting the project. Costs to the build the lines were estimated at $177 million.
The city in 2017 accepted a $50 million federal grant to help build the new line, with a possible $25 million more forthcoming.
Last fall, the Seattle Department of Transportation also ordered 10 new streetcars for the First Avenue route.
Then, in March 2018, The Seattle Times reported that Metro believed costs to operate the new streetcar system could be 50 percent higher than what SDOT had publicly stated.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s office said the 10 streetcars SDOT ordered, at a cost of $52 million, were heavier and longer than the streetcars the city now operates and that it’s unclear if they’ll work on the current track and fit in the maintenance barn.
How serious those issues are remains an open question.
The city released the KPMG report Aug. 31, finding that the city’s estimated operating costs were reasonable but that construction costs had soared to $252 million, driven by higher prices for materials and labor. The report also predicted a big increase in ridership from the new line.
Scrapping the project would mean a sunk cost for the city of $55 million, $31 million of which has already been spent, KPMG found.
The city hopes to decide by winter whether to abandon the project or move forward.