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Seattle — Future Streetcar Routes

The following article appeared in the Seattle Post Intelligencer on December 7, 2007:

How many streetcars do we desire?
New route could be start of a much broader network

Where might Seattle's new streetcar lead us?

Perhaps to a whole network of streetcars.

With the opening next week of the $52.1 million South Lake Union Streetcar line, Mayor Greg Nickels and several City Council members favor expanding the network beyond Lake Union and the Elliott Bay waterfront.

"We now want to talk about a network that connects neighborhoods to downtown," said James Kelly, president of the Seattle Urban League and member of the city Streetcar Alliance, a pro-streetcar group asking the city to look closer at new routes with engineering and financial analyses.
Proponents see streetcars, which are beginning to reappear across the country, as a more appealing way to lure riders to fixed-rail systems such as the 1.3-mile line to the lake that will open Dec. 12, part of billionaire Paul Allen's plan to redevelop the south lake shore. The city managed to raise more than half the new line's construction cost through a local-improvement district tax.

"There's a lot of momentum," said City Councilman Richard Conlin. "People are really attracted to the idea."

But there are issues to resolve, such as where to extend the system and how to convince residents to pay for it. Streetcars are cheaper to build than light rail ($40 million per mile for South Lake Union vs. $148 million per mile for light rail to the airport) but more expensive to run than buses ($186 per hour vs. $120 for a bus, not including equipment replacement cost).

They may help development, but they're no faster than other traffic and they take up parking space with rails.

There's also concern that committing more hours to running streetcars will mean less to provide for needed bus service. There are reports of bicyclists catching wheels in rails and injuring themselves. Some cyclists are upset that the rails to Lake Union run where they ride, and some are pressing for safety measures, including early completion of a new bicycle lane a block away, caution signs and filler to keep bike tires out of crevices along rails.

The line won't immediately decrease bus service, though money not spent running streetcars could be spent on bus service, said Mike Mann of the city Office of Policy and Management. The city said it will consider additional safety measures if they're needed once the South Lake Union line begins running, but a dedicated streetcar corridor would have increased costs and gaps around tracks are unavoidable.

"We deserve one, that's pretty clear," said Council President Nick Licata of an expanded streetcar network. "Do we need one? That's not as clear."

The council's Transportation Committee on Jan. 8 will discuss a possible city streetcar "network" map. Money has been set aside for preliminary engineering work to determine whether streetcars can scale steep slopes such as those to Capitol Hill, and how they can run on bridges.
Councilwoman Jan Drago, the committee chairwoman, said she hopes to develop a network plan next year.

Among the possibilities:


This would cost between $83 million and $89 million to build and up to $3.7 million per year to operate, depending on its length, according to a 2005 city study. One design would connect the South Lake Union line to the Lake Washington Ship Canal via Eastlake Avenue and extend east to Montlake Boulevard on Northeast Campus Parkway, 15th Avenue Northeast and Pacific Street.

The study said the UW extension could add as many as 2 million more riders to the system annually between the university and Lake Union. Officials say it could help move people between the UW and the biotech industries developing south of the lake, and could add another alternative to cars as the Eastlake neighborhood grows.

The extension would be costly, though, requiring an estimated $25 million to strengthen the University and Fairview Avenue bridges. Residents are concerned about loss of parking and the report said some also questioned the need for the line given the shuttle the UW operates to South Lake Union. Sound Transit also plans to serve the campus with light rail, on the other side of Interstate 5.


Sound Transit proposed a version of the line as a substitute for a First Hill light-rail station that the agency decided not to build. Its proposal would connect to the waterfront streetcar line at South Jackson Street, extend east to 12th Avenue and then north on Capitol Hill on Broadway to a light rail station, at an estimate annual operating cost of $5.2 million.

Estimated to cost $149 million to build in 2006 dollars, it was part of the Sound Transit expansion proposal that voters rejected when they turned down the Proposition 1 transportation measure in November.

The city also is considering a version that would run the tracks east on Jackson as far as 23rd Avenue. The 2005 study estimated the shorter version to cost $59.9 million, exclusive of right-of-way purchases, and said it would cost $1.3 million annually to operate. The city study estimated the line would carry as many as 270,000 riders each year.

In the wake of the ballot defeat Sound Transit has no money for building the line, but would share the small amount of engineering research it did on it, said spokesman Geoff Patrick. He said it's not clear yet whether the agency will undertake the streetcar connection or include it in another expansion measure.


The line established at the behest of the late former City Councilman George Benson still operates but with electric, rubber-tired trolley buses instead of the vintage rail-mounted streetcars, after the maintenance barn was displaced by the Olympic Sculpture Park. The vintage streetcars were stored.

The rail line, if it reopens, could connect to a Jackson Street route if that is built but the rails along Alaskan Way will likely close if the Alaskan Way Viaduct is torn down or rebuilt. There's talk of moving the waterfront line to Western or First Avenues. Extending the waterfront line northward to the Amgen medical research facility along Elliott Avenue would cost an estimated $16.1 million and add up to 700,000 more riders annually, according to the 2005 study.

Developer Greg Smith has announced plans to include a maintenance barn for the old streetcars in a development near Occidental Park but is still negotiating with King County over its contribution to the cost. There's a separate barn built for the Lake Union line but no connection to it from the waterfront, and some officials think two facilities may be needed.

The alliance, Kelly's group, also has suggested looking at two other routes: One would link Westlake Center to Capitol Hill, using Pike or Pine streets. Another would connect the Lake Union line to Seattle Center, possibly extending east to Capitol Hill and passing by the new Gates Foundation. An Alliance map, circulated at a news conference Thursday, shows several other possible routes, including a second one to the university and one to West Seattle.

"Whether we extend (the streetcar line) or not depends on how well this one performs," City Councilman Tom Rasmussen said.

Seattle Potential Streetcar Routes


• Construction cost: $52.1 million
• Paid by adjacent landowners: $25.7 million
• State grant: $3 million
• Proceeds of land sale to Vulcan Inc., South Lake Union developer: $3.5 million
• Proceeds of property exchange with Vulcan Inc.: $1.8 million
• Federal funds: $14.6 million


• $2 million per year. To be paid from private sponsorships: $500,000 annually. (ongoing fund-raising) Estimated ticket sales: $500,000 annually

Source: City of Seattle

P-I reporter Larry Lange can be reached at 206-448-8313 or larrylange@seattlepi.com.


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