OVER AND THROUGH | The resurgence of Seattle streetcars

Future lines to connect First Hill, University District

OVER AND THROUGH | The resurgence of Seattle streetcars

OVER AND THROUGH | The resurgence of Seattle streetcars

One hundred years ago, the majority of Seattleites commuted by electric streetcar, a trolley on fixed rails. It was the first golden age of electric transportation. 

In 1912, Seattle was a leader in electric public transit; by 1941, all the fixed rails were gone. Gasoline and rubber tires took over.

Now, there is a growing resurgence nationwide for urban electric streetcars, trolleys or trams. We are poised, over the next few years, to become the premier U.S. streetcar city in the new electric age. 

The Seattle City Council endorsed the Seattle Streetcar Network plan in 2008. The city is in charge of the design and build of the system. King County Metro operates and maintains the streetcars themselves. Our new trams will be built in Seattle proper and are expected to look like the ones running now.

Our modern streetcars run exclusively on surface streets and should not be confused with the Link light-rail system. Trams are about the size of a big bus, yet are far more flexible and travel at speeds usually below 25 mph. 

Link light rail is a train that couples separate cars together traveling significantly by subways and trestles, often cruising better than highway speeds. 

There will be stations where a short walk will connect you from Seattle tram to regional light rail to local rubber tired buses or even to the monorail. Worldwide, successful big cities have such networks. Electric trams and cars are the marks the new golden age of electric transportation.

Streetcar charm

In 2010, a national study about the relationship between streetcars and environments covering many cities including Seattle, sponsored by the Federal Transit Research Program, overwhelmingly concluded, “Streetcars positively affected the built environment particularly in attracting new development or enhancing revitalization.”

Citizens, politicians and capitalists knew well before 1861 that a train station created a prosperous community.

Streetcars provide needed local on the ground mobility in a much quieter, cleaner, smoother and quicker way than buses. They run more consistently and frequently, with headway times (times between cars) usually only 10 to 15 minutes apart. 

Our streetcars provide easy entrance, with level loading for all — no stepping up to step in, and are easy for wheelchairs. 

Worldwide, there is a romance with trams. Businesses will pay disproportionately to have trams running nearby. Property values will increase, as will population density, businesses and social interaction.

An interesting feature of the streetcar is its ability to move in traffic. Yet that same aspect also presents a danger as cars and people weave in and out of daily street travel. 

Seattle will need to make adjustments as we make room for the streetcar lines that are coming. The reconfigured streets will help with travel-friendly plazas, bike lanes and well-designed stations, along with plants and public art. 


SLU line’s success

South Lake Union (SLU), Seattle’s first modern line, has a growing ridership, up from about 1,900 in 2009 to almost 3,000 daily riders in 2011. There are 11 stops on the 2.6-mile, round-trip SLU that begins at Fairview Avenue and Ward Street and ends at the Westlake transit hub. 

There have been a few accidents, mostly from cars running red lights, like the latest one at Westlake in late January. 

A consortium of public and private support contributed to the project and to the ongoing expenses. If you look at the area in which the SLU travels, you will see a noticeable increase of employment, shops, hotels and restaurants.

In 2008, the City Council determined the next line to be built would be the First Hill project. The streetcar plan moves forward as the First Hill line is fully funded for $132 million through an agreement with Sound Transit, as a piece of the voter-approved “ST2” mass transit expansion for our region. 

The 10-station, 2.5-mile line will connect First Hill, Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square and the International District. While there is much enthusiasm to bring the line all the way to Aloha Street on the north end of the line, it will likely be a future addition when funds are available. 

The First Hill line is slated for groundbreaking this April. The construction will take place in 2013, with testing to take place early 2014 and an eventual open in spring 2014. 

The next plan to build the Central line to connect with the end of Jackson Street (part of First Hill project) is the latest thinking, according to Ethan Melone, the city’s streetcar guru. The Central line would run along First Avenue, eventually meeting with the SLU too, giving the city more connectivity.

If future lines go as planned, the SLU will share the base line, with spurs heading out to a Ballard/Fremont line along Westlake Avenue and a University line along Fairview and Eastlake avenues from its base in South Lake Union.

When the proposed streetcar lines are finished, imagine how economic possibilities will arise from the ability to travel from one end of Seattle to the other, with shorter waits and nicer rides. 

For more information, visit www.seattlestreetcar.org.

JEAN SWENSON and ASHLY KNAPP have studied and covered transportation machines and issues in print, on radio and television, locally and nationally. Send questions, ideas, comments or other communication to jeanandashly@gmail.com.

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