In the booming South Lake Union area, the city of Seattle is looking at changing two lanes of Westlake Avenue North into transit-only lanes.

Share story

Passenger counts backtracked last year on Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar, even though it cruises through the fastest-growing neighborhood of America’s fastest-growing big city.

That’s no way to run a railroad.

So the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will try to speed up the clogged route, along a mile of Westlake Avenue North. General traffic will be kicked out of the two lanes that contain streetcar tracks, in hopes of making a train ride more practical for more people.

South Lake Union streetcar average weekday ridership

2009: 1,539

2010: 1,834

2011: 2,515

2012: 2,669

2013: 2,686

2014: 2,486

2015: 2,217

* Figures for 2015 through March 14.

* The seven-day average during 2008, the first full year, was 1,339 boardings.

Source: Seattle Department of Transportation

SDOT’s bold move also provides a chance to add bus service that city and business leaders desperately seek, to avoid drowning in waves of commuting tech workers.

The King County Metro RapidRide C Line from West Seattle will be extended beyond downtown and onto Westlake, as promised last fall, when city voters passed a $60 car-tab fee to buy more bus hours. The crowded Route 40 from Ballard will show up more often. Streetcars, too, will be more abundant, when an additional train funded by Amazon enters the trackway.

“These improvements, along with the streetcar, will mean a bus or a train will go by every three minutes,” Mayor Ed Murray said. “That’s like New York in Seattle.”

By giving trains their own lanes, the city is backhandedly admitting its old strategy is obsolete — mixed-traffic streetcars don’t work.

Nonetheless, city officials say it’s too late to alter the $135 million First Hill streetcar route scheduled to open this summer, mixed with cars on Broadway. The city estimates an average trip from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square will take 18 minutes.

But if a third streetcar line is built downtown on First Avenue, a City Council resolution insists trains run in separate lanes.

SDOT this month launched a $119,400 study on how to redesign Westlake, from the Museum of History and Industry to McGraw Square Park, just north of Westlake Center. A report is due in June. Consulting firms Nelson/Nygaard and CH2M Hill are doing the work, as an add-on to their $2.4 million First Avenue transit planning contract.

Possible downsides include loss of street parking, lane conflicts between transit and right-turning cars, worsened bicycling conditions, and more frustration for motorists who encounter longer car queues at the intersections.

City streetcar projects manager Ethan Melone blames gridlock for a drop in passengers from 2,686 per weekday in 2012-2013 to just 2,486 in 2014. Counts fell an additional 9 percent in early 2015, to 2,217.

“We’ve really seen declines in the ontime performance of the streetcar, especially in the peak, and that will flatten ridership, unless we address that,” he told the City Council .

When the line opened in December 2007, with “Love Train” playing in the background, supporters viewed the line as a tool to build prosperity, by impressing companies and their recruits, as well as transit. Landowners put up nearly half the $56 million price.

City Councilmember Nick Licata warned then: “The trolleys that go in cannot just be toys. They have to have dedicated rail lines to make them dependable.”

Growth is coming even faster than expected. Employment in South Lake Union spiked from 24,550 workers to 35,900 from 2009-14, while the population rose from 4,180 to 5,341 people.

Mike McQuaid, president of the South Lake Union Community Council, said the area will house 50,000 employees and residents by year end. Facebook is coming, and Amazon is building three towers a few blocks south of Denny Way.

“It’s a neighborhood in transition. What we do know is, we don’t have enough transit. We can’t move people in and out of South Lake Union,” McQuaid said. “We have people being left at bus stops.”

Sound Transit’s new University of Washington, Capitol Hill and Angle Lake light-rail stations will deliver bigger crowds to Westlake Station next year, followed by the Northgate segment in 2021.

Suddenly, it’s become imperative to give transit riders, from throughout the city and suburbia, a speedier last mile from Westlake Station to South Lake Union.

Yonah Freemark, editor of The Transport Politic blog, commends Seattle for rethinking the street. To his knowledge, this would be the first U.S. streetcar line that’s upgraded from mixed traffic into exclusive transit lanes. Toronto, whose streetcar network carries a quarter million people a day, will sometimes retrofit general roadways to make streetcar-only corridors.

Scott Kubly, Seattle transportation director, points to survey data saying half of South Lake Union morning commuters still drive solo — and that ratio must be pushed down to 20 or 30 percent, like downtown, he said.

Joe Szilagyi, president of the West Seattle Transportation Coalition, said he’s heard ballpark figures of a 10-minute time savings if the C Line extension runs unimpeded.

A chance to save 20 minutes a day for so many West Seattle commuters is unquestionably a good move, Szilagyi said.

The community council supports Westlake transit lanes but thinks the bigger priority is solving east-west gridlock at Mercer Street and Denny Way, said its transportation chairman, Kyle Ducey.

Ducey hopes the city’s planned “adaptive signals,” to continuously re-time the red and green lights based on how many cars approach, will help.

The South Lake Union Chamber of Commerce generally supports the transit-lane concept. Nonetheless, chamber president Curt Archambault said business leaders are concerned about whether drivers will find even more strain making right turns from Westlake onto Mercer Street, toward I-5.

“We don’t want to create another problem, by solving one problem,” he said.

Streetcar opponent John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, sees more lane space as yet another subsidy for the 1.3-mile line. The streetcar has needed three bailout loans totaling $4.2 million to cover operating shortages.

Even if the share of people using transit grows, chances are the total number of drivers grows, too. Some 24,000 new parking stalls are included in buildings under construction or permitted, said Archambault. The best that SDOT can hope for is congestion doesn’t get worse.

Might the city someday ask for another mulligan, to set the First Hill streetcars free? Kubly said the context is different. Broadway has less room than Westlake, and different users.

“Unless you make the whole thing pedestrian, you can’t do it,” he said.

The Westlake proposal builds on principles that already succeed on Third Avenue, where buses run mostly free from car interference, said Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, who will speak March 31 at the Seattle Central Library

Walker said the city has become a leader in North America, by designing streets to respect transit users. “This is really an important breakthrough, and it makes Seattle more like Paris,” he said.

“There is no room in Seattle for any more car traffic.”