Seattle’s City Council’s Transportation committee approved a streetcar expansion plan in a 4 to 2 vote today. A full council vote is expected for next week. Four lines in total were approved, the First Hill Line, the Central Line, a Ballard line and a University District Line. The two streetcar lines fast-tracked are the First Hill Line, which has had $120 million in funding approved as part of ST2 that passed last month, and the Central Line, which is meant to be a part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct construction mitigation. The Central Line will replace the defunct Waterfront Streetcar line, which will finally be removed during viaduct construction.

The First Hill line would run from the Pioneer Square or ID tunnel station up Jackson to around Broadway, turn north and follow Broadway up to either John or Aloha. The Central Line would follow First Ave from the Pioneer Square station to about Mercer street. Neither alignment is fixed, and there are groups pushing to change both plans. Some in First Hill want that line moved further west, since it was meant as a replacement for a First Hill subway station, and some along First Avenue don’t like that alignment for the Central Line, believing it would worsen traffic and remove parking along the street.

The vote also approved an extension of the SLU line on Eastlake to the University District, and a line to Ballard either on 15th Avenue or along Westlake through Fremont. Those two lines are not fast tracked. It’s worth noting that there is no funding for either of these lines, and that funding for the Central Line as part of the viaduct replacement is not definite, though the rumor is that WSDOT will fund it.

Since these routes can be built pretty quickly, both the Central Line and the First Hill line could open by 2012 or possibly sooner. Many in the city want the First Hill line to open much sooner than the funding is scheduled to come on line from ST2 – which allocates funding for the line around 2016 -since construction on the Capitol Hill station is going to disrupt life on Broadway, and bringing the streetcar there could make life a little easier. Final engineering for the First Hill line should be done by February 2009.

The two dissenters on this vote were Nick Licata and Richard McIver. Tom Rassmussen, who is not on the transportation panel, is likely to vote ‘no’ as well, and has a competing plan that he will bring to the full council along with Licata. One of the other two members not on the committee would need to vote yes in order to approve the streetcars in a full council vote.
Image from caseysail, via the STB flickr pool

72 Replies to “City Council Panel Approves Streetcar Plan”

  1. Expecting “what about cyclists, there is no protection for cyclists, streetcars have never been built in cycle-heavy cities” argument in 3…2…1…

      1. They aren’t– but I hear the argument heavy and hard round these parts and other places. Boulder scuttled their plan because cyclists insisted there was no precedent and that there wasn’t a test-case for a bike-friendly city putting in streetcars in or near bike routes.

        Instead of “You forgot about Poland” it should be “You forgot about Portland”.

      2. As we move a way from being an autocentric society, many drivers may have to change their ways, and some bicycle drivers are included. Yes, some of us will have to slow down a bit near the tracks, cross at 90 degree angles, and be more respectful of pedestrians and transit riders waiting for a train or bus. It may add a few seconds to a two wheel commute or errand, but it won’t be the end of the world.

      3. Tracks alone aren’t necessarily a problem with bikes if designed well (well marked, center lane, no need to ever ride bikes parallel). The issue is riding parallel to the tracks. My wife has hit the road twice in Seattle because of this (once right in front of me, causing me to have to brake so hard I flipped over my handlebars and landed on her) – both with old out-of-use rail, but the issue is the same. If you ever forget about the rail lines and your tire falls into a groove, you’re toast.

      4. I was pretty impressed by the use of extremely heavy rubber flaps riveted into and against the concrete embedded rails the track crossing at Alaskan Way and Royal Brougham (out in front of the Coast Guard station, sort of). The material is so heavy a big guy on a bike (me) could not depress it into the sunken rail trackway, but I imagine rail wheels have no problem staying seated as they cross that part of Alaskan Way. Now if the City could do something about the rest of the asphalt on that patch of road…


  2. I guess it should be added that WSDOT has already confirmed the return of the Waterfront Streetcar depending on the selection to replace the viaduct. ( ) They already have money set aside for the project, including a similar sized maintenance barn. It would run Terminal 90 (Amgen/Louis Dryfus grain terminal pedestrian overpass) to it’s original 5th and Jackson stop. The 5 streetcars will continue it’s service on the route. All of the new routes will be the United Streetcar 10T trams (Skoda) or Inekon 10T (which is what is currently running now, which is just a modified version of the Skoda 10T)

    So we would in effect have Waterfront (5th and Jackson to Terminal 90 via Alaskan Way), Central (Key Arena to 2nd and King Street via 1st Ave), First Hill (Jackson Street to 12th to Broadway), University (Fairview Via Eastlake Ave, extension of SLU line), and Ballard/Fremont (via Westlake Ave to 36th/Leary Way and terminating near NW Market)

    Each of the line will utilize the “3 blocks, 3 weeks” method by Stacy and Witbeck which constructs the line with minimal disruptions to businesses. Stacy and Witbeck have or will built the entire Portland Streetcar route, Seattle Streetcar, Toronto Streetcar, Washington DC Streetcar, the Portland MAX Yellow Line extension and Portland MAX Green Line extension.

    1. Do you know if they are planning on double-tracking the new Waterfront Streetcar? If we do get an expanded pedestrian waterfront I’d imagine that the streetcar would become more popular, necessitating more frequent service.

      Also, where would they put the tracks north of the Olympic Sculpture Park? I’d assume the existing rail tracks are being used, so they’d have to take a slice of Myrtle Edwards Park for it.

  3. I’m cautiously thrilled about these streetcar lines. If done well (read: traffic separated), they are a real first step to good in-city transit. If done poorly then they’re fixed-path buses stuck in the same traffic, and I won’t envy the suckers stuck on 1st Avenue during rush hour on game day.

    I still wish they would have routed the Central line up the Counterbalance, complete with a vintage train style and actual counterbalance system (I’m picturing a big floor-mounted wooden handle the driver pulls to attach to an underground hook), but maybe we can convince them to extend it someday.

    1. Me too. I hope there is a bit of separation. It works great on Westlake because that street is normally empty. Putting it on 1st could be a problem unless traffic is made to stay off of it.

      1. Eliminating on-street parking on First from Mercer (or Denny) to Spokane (or Horton) would certainly help.

    2. That’s the thing. They’re not done well as you define it. That said all the routes they’re talking about doing now serve fairly short distance trips, so I’m not sure it’s a big deal, but I really don’t like the idea of building a streetcar to Ballard that sits in traffic.

      Also, they’re talking about building the Central Line and First Hill line as two different lines that meet at King Station rather than one line where one might ride a streetcar from the ferry to First Hill. Other than this, though, if ST is paying for the First Hill line and the state for the Central Line I figure we might as well build them.

    3. ummmmmmm I would would check the dictionary for the definition of streetcar. from “a public vehicle running regularly along certain streets, usually on rails, as a trolley car or trolley bus.”
      There is a place for traffic separated LRT, and there is a place for streetcars, which are in essence the same as buses, except they almost always get much higher ridership and spur development. Maybe there are a couple places where having tracks off to the side would work, like with the SLUT on Valley, but most of the time, it’s fine to have it go in traffic.

      1. SF has a weird streetcar-light rail hybrid. The T line looks like Link in the Valley most of its run, and all of the lines even ride in a subway tunnel through downtown.

        Outside of that most of the stops are like the SLUT.

        So there’s no reason you can’t combine the different styles. It’s better ot just build something, and make improvements later, especially compared to not building anything.

      2. I don’t think we should constrict ourselves to the definition of streetcar. If an area has heavy traffic, give transit an exclusive right of way. In areas where there is less traffic, mixed traffic is perfectly fine. The light rail advocacy website Light Rail Now discusses this idea as a ‘rapid streetcar.’ Trains operate in seperated right of way but utilize the low impact streetcar track bed to minimize construction costs.

      3. I think you’re confusing traffic separation with vehicle type. Light rail can run in traffic, it just doesn’t make sense to most of the time because the overall goal when you spend that much money is to have timely and fast service. Streetcars can also run in traffic, but are often traffic separated for the same reason.

        I can’t think of a single streetcar I’ve ridden other than the SLUS that isn’t traffic separated through much of downtown. SF is described above, Istanbul is completely traffic separated, Zagreb has streetcar-only lanes (though they do mix with traffic at some points), even Astoria’s little streetcar runs in its own right-of-way.

      4. San Francisco is more Light Rail than streetcar. It’s basically a subway all the way from Embarcadero to West Portal, then when it gets out to the neighborhoods, it runs in traffic.
        And have you ever been to Portland? Its extremely successful streetcar runs completely at grade in traffic through downtown. The MAX does too, which I think is a bad thing, as MAX is supposed to be regional, rapid-ish transit.

      5. Dedicated lanes like Link in the RV? I think still waiting for stoplights and worried about crazy drivers and short block lengths present problems.

      6. It’s pretty similar to Rainier Valley. The short block lengths limit MAX to two-car trains, if I recall correctly.

      7. Link in the Rainier Valley runs in the raised median of MLK with curbs.

        MAX through downtown Portland runs in dedicated lanes marked with diamonds that are paved differently with raised pavement markers separating it from traffic. Cars could easily drive in those lanes if they wanted to. Not so much with Link in RV.

  4. I have no problems with eliminating on-street parking on roads like Broadway or 45th from I-5 to Aurora, if it meant more public transit opportunities. 45th is extremely slow during rush hour. What should be a twenty minute ride can take an hour because of parked cars taking up what could be a lane for buses and bikes, and right turn onlys.

    1. It’s nice to know you don’t object, elswinger. Local businesses and residents, however, will strongly object to the elimination of on-street parking. Taking away on-street parking transforms a street from a place that people go to, into a place that people go through. Why stop here? There’s no place for you here. Move along. And people do move along. A large portion of the small businesses along 45th and Broadway do not have off-street parking. Eliminate on-street parking and there is then no way to access those businesses by car.

      While you may never try to access those businesses by car, there is simply not enough of a market based solely on auto-free patrons to support many of those businesses. Making traffic flow better does very little to help the businesses. It only encourages people to pass through faster.

      From a local business perspective (and local resident perspective), it’s better to take away a traffic lane for transit than it is to take away a parking lane.

      All this is to say, you’d meet heavy political resistance to taking away on-street parking, but what’s more important that politics is economics. Even if you succeeded in winning that political fight, without parking, many of those businesses will die and you will have destroyed the very thing that makes those neighborhoods great.

      1. Downtown Seattle only uses 70% of its parking stock, and most business on Cap and First Hills is walk-up. Odds-out, the parking done in front of most of these businesses is employees or people going between errands.

        The only people who really get chafed over this are those who use cars beyond reason in a city as generally walkable as Seattle.

      2. Living in Wallingford and being a fequent visitor of said shops, I have never, not once parked on 45th. What a nightmare that would be.

        It’s all about the side streets.

      3. I think it’s a different argument on 45th compared to 1st. The amount of business store owners get from parking on 1st just can’t compare to the number of people that walk there from elsewhere. Car turnover is maybe one per 20 minutes in front of any given business, whereas pedestrian and soon streetcar traffic will be in the dozens per minute.

        45th is another story, but then there are plenty of side streets for people to park on.

  5. Isn’t Amsterdam a cycle-friendly city? They have streetcar/tram routes still running in that city.

  6. I’m just curious… is this alternative plan a different streetcar plan, or is it the old “increase bus service first for immediate relief” thing?

  7. thank gawd someone mentioned Amsterdam – one of the most cycle-rich cities in Europe AND it has kilometers of street car lines. No worries there.

    Street car on 1st ave. downtown? I’m not sure about that. Love the line up to Ballard – would love a loop that goes up to wallingford, heads east to Fremont, then Ballard, then InterBay down to Lower QA and connects with the existing lines in South Lake. What a treat a ride on that would be for a lazy weekend day for the casual user and what handy and swit ride it would be for the commuters.

    1. How often do they come together though? It is obviously bike friendly, but do the tram tracks cross the bike paths? Amsterdam is so bike friendly they have dedicated and separated bike lanes which I have a feeling really don’t cross those lines. I could be totally wrong about that though.

      1. There are many crossings. In some of the congested areas there are four way rail crossing meshed with four way traffic and bikes going every which way. Bikes do rule in Amsterdam – you can get run down in a bike lane as a pedestrian – or at least shouted at. The only place in the US I’ve seen like that is Isla Vista adjacent to UC Santa Barbara.

      2. Off-topic, sure, but the best city for bike riders is definitely copenhagen.
        Has anyone been there? There are bike lanes on virtually every street in the entire city, along with bike signals on traffic lights, and bike parking everywhere.

      3. Amsterdam is so bike friendly that bikes outnumber cars by a large margin. The bikes ride in the streets, all the streets. There are some streets that are closed to cars, making them bike and pedestrian only, but bikes and tram lines cross paths often.

  8. I also wonder what the point is of pushing everything downtown. Wouldn’t that be just recreating bus lines? And if everything is connected then aren’t we also almost trying to build light-rail again? What happens when new lightrail segments are looking to fill the routes these streetcars fill? Will there be hesitation because we “already have rail” there or “we are building it twice”?

    My feeling is that these should not be connected at least not this early in the game. Sounds kind of weird I’m sure. But I think these streetcars should connect neighborhoods as opposed to being commuter sorts of things. If you route everything to DT Seattle, it seems that’s what you are doing. Everything on the bus already routes downtown which can be frustrating depending on where you are headed. We should fulfill service we don’t currently have. More point-to-point like Southwest Air and less Hub and Spoke like other airlines (and Metro buses)

    So I’ll speak specifically about my situation as that’s what I’m most familiar. Others can fill-in their own local details. I live in North Seattle. I think it would make a lot of sense to connect a few of the neighborhoods here. Maybe a triangular route of Ballard/Crown Hill – Fremont – Phinney/Greenwood. Or if you want to get more simplistic, just Fremont and Ballard along Leary (which is an up-and-coming area). In essence you’re connecting two or three “regional” neighborhoods. I think all those neighborhoods would then receive benefits of this connection.

    1. The proposed Ballard streetcar would run to Fremont via Leary. If you’re already building that link, you might as well connect it to downtown and get the guaranteed ridership (commuter or otherwise) that comes along with it.

    2. I think you are onto something about “building it twice”. I am very worried that building the streetcar to Ballard will severely undermine taking light rail there. Transit nerds understand the differences (wider stop spacing, higher speeds, dedicated ROW), but the general public doesn’t quite grasp the difference. Of course riders notice and like light rail much better, but most can’t necessarily articulate why they like it better.

      Anyway, we are also building rapid ride to Ballard, which I think is a better plan. Because rapid ride requires much less capital invesetment than a streetcar, it makes a lot of sense to build up a transit constituency, then “upgrade” from BRT to LRT, but I think trying to “upgrade” from streetcar to LRT will be a tougher sell, both because the difference is more subtle, but more so because it means throwing out a substantial capital investment.

      1. Yeah, and plus light rail to Ballard would probably take a different route, and be completely grade separated.

        I would want it to go in a tunnel with stops in Belltown, Seattle Center, Uptown, and Queen Anne, then come out of the tunnel and be elevated along 15th, stopping at Interbay, and then going into a tunnel again under the cut and ending in Ballard.

      2. If Ballard’s RapidRide comes online along with a streetcar then realistically there might be pressure to put light rail along another corridor for ST3. It’ll be a while before the staff will begin planning for future expansion, so it’s kind of a wait and see game. To be honest, a subway from Downtown to Queen Anne via Belltown would be insanely awesome. Presumably under 2nd Ave, it’d also be insanely expensive. Getting that line north to Ballard or out to West Seattle is its own funding challenge.

        Fortunately ST will be pretty much be forced by subarea equity and the bus tunnel’s capacity to start a new spur in Seattle. UW-Ballard, Ballard-Downtown, and Downtown-West Seattle are the corridors being studied under ST2. Of course, any option could be (read: will be) taken piecemeal.

        We’re not going to vote on it until 2016 or later though, so it might get boring to speculate over the next 6, 12, or 16 years. :(

      3. //it might get boring to speculate over the next 6, 12, or 16 years//

        Like that’ll stop us. ;-) I predict we speculate a good hundred times in the next year alone.

        On the other hand, a lot can happen in 16 years, and if we run out of oil we’ll have to find something to spend all of that gas money on.

  9. Amsterdam is great and all, but come on. It’s smaller and more dense than Seattle (wikipedia treats it as twice as dense, but that’s including suburbs).

    San Francisco is also about 60% the size, and about 160% the population (total more than twice as dense). Now can we find a city that isn’t much smaller, and much more dense than Seattle where streetcars work?

    Otherwise, is it really worth the money? I like how this blog always tries to avoid how much these transit projects cost. How much is it if only one of the lines is partially paid for with $120 million?

    1. Smart Transit,

      I like how this blog always tries to avoid how much these transit projects cost.

      Perhaps you should check out our posts about the actual cost of the Sound Transit 2 package, or our very recent series on how many of us thought Eastside commuter rail wasn’t worth the money.

      But yeah, we “always try to avoid” that.

    2. Zagreb has about the same population and much more land (~400 sq miles compared to our 140). Check out their streetcar system. The streets downtown were crowded with them and I never had to wait more than a minute before another one came by.

      1. Here’s another city that’s about our size. It’s called Seattle, and it had a great streetcar system up until its people refused to pay more than a nickel per ride (and when GM came in with “better” and cheaper buses). Here’s a picture of what 1st Ave used to look like.

    3. This is a blog for those who have a keener interest in transportation issues than most of our fellow citizens have the time for. My wife has all sorts of unprintable names for my interest in transit in Seattle but the truth is that we have to energize the community around something and it is the essence of leadership to do so – even if none of us may actually be in a position to do very much, we can still offer our enthusiasm for very real solutions to very real problems and hope that someone in the corridors of power with a deep enough pocket can make some of these things work for what we believe to be the greater good!

      Aside from ST2 which should now be bankrolled, my transit priorities would be:

      Reaching a point through rail improvements such as the Point Defiance bypass, where we could add way more trains on the SEA-PDX Amtrak Cascade route
      Getting at least a second and hopefully even a third Amtrak train set to Vancouver
      Trying for additional trains from Seattle to Spokane and speeding up the new station at Leavenworth
      Closer to home, I would speed up rennovating King Street Station
      I would speed up the process of additional streetcars to the University, Capitol Hill, Seattle Center and Queen Anne
      I would rennovate that horrible BNSF bridge over the I-90 at Eastgate if I did nothing else with that line.
      I would fund better connectivity between SeaTac Link Station and the terminal because people aren’t going to like hauling lots of luggage on that walkway.
      I would fund illuminating the many bridges over Lake Union with decorative lighting – Paul Schell advocated this once.
      I would fund more car ferries and establish a passenger ferry between Seattle and Tacoma.
      I would try and persuade Thurston County to come and join our ST taxing district so we could help fund Sounder as far as Olympia
      I would try and fund more bi-directional Sounder trains at weekends and throughout the day and evening beyond ST2 proposals


      1. Bringing Thurston County into our taxing district could make it pretty tough to pass future ballot measures, I would think. Prop 1 barely passed in Pierce County.

        Also, do we really need Sounder all the way to Olympia? Seems like building upon the 4 daily Cascades trains would be a better way to go.

    4. Well Portland is very similar to Seattle and their streetcar (and light rail) seems to work very well.

  10. Of course Amsterdam and SF are more dense than Seattle- they got that way by having rail transit.

    Is it worth the money? Compared with what? It’s gotta be a better investment than the three aircraft carriers sitting at Bremerton waiting to be cut up for scrap- or maybe just sunk in practice bombing runs if they’re too radioactive to even get the value of the scrap out of them.

    Well, I suppose we must resign ourselves to hearing the same comments made by the same people again, as we all bring our much worn and too-familiar stones to the soup. Thank heavens Seattle has a DOT and City Council to actually get things done- as mistaken as I may think they are in certain particulars.

    Every once in a while it’s good to read a history of some railroad or electric line, to remind ourselves that none of these sprang into existence wholly formed or free of financial original sin. Mistakes will be made, but none of them will be as big as the mistakes made when I-5 was built through Seattle.

  11. PLEASE have them run down the center lane in their own right of way.

    Every person on the team for this should go to Prague to see how it’s done.

    1. HERE HERE! Or just look at the Max Yellow Line in Portland on Interstate Avenue. Sure, that is technically “light rail” and not a “street car,” but really, who cares what you call it? It achieves the following criteria, which is what we need to be demanding:

      1) Frequent service
      2) Dedicated right of way
      3) Stops spaced closely enough to encourage pedestrian-centered neighborhoods (as opposed to Link on MLK)
      4) Service that is substantially superior to busses (i.e. faster, higher capacity, more reliable, can’t get stuck in traffic)

    2. Daily traffic on 1st Avenue is under 25,000 (although it is the busiest of the through roads) so there shouldn’t be a traffic issue, but it does have 5-6 functional lanes for the alignment and could easily have a dedicated lane for a good deal of it.

      1. I’m a huge fan of streetcars, but I strongly disagree. Having worked on 1st & Lenora for years, I frequently saw 1st Avenue backed up to Belltown from Pioneer Square for every single home Mariners game or other stadium event. The gridlock often resulted in congestion on crossing streets because 1st was so backed up. It would be a major, major mistake to run street cars on 1st Avenue given that congestion. They’ll get stuck in the same traffic and become so unreliable that people won’t ride them.

        It would be better to run them on Western/Elliot though Belltown and Downtown, or on 2nd/4th Avenues.

      2. Or just remove parking from 1st and put the streetcar line in the middle of the road. Cars would then be free to sit in their gridlocked state as the streetcar speeds by.

      3. The problem with tracking it through the center lanes is that it has to move out of the center lane for each stop. If you have island stops, you make the pedestrians deal with the traffic rather than the transit vehicle, a less than ideal setup in tourist areas without pre-established transit infrastructure. If you have tracks in the center lane, you end up in endless wait mode trying to merge in traffic situations, even if it is otherwise moderate to light.

        It would be far easier to simply limit outer lanes to buses and streetcars and local access.

        And besides, traffic mitigation would force 1st Ave traffic onto either a Western/Alaskan couplet or further up to 4th or so.

        Also, the market would more than likely disagree with completely removing lanes near them.

      4. I prefer having the streetcar in the middle of the road, since making improvements that allow for pedestrians to easily access islands would slow down traffic on 1st. Considering the retail areas all along 1st this is actually a good thing.

        That being said, I could imagine this implemented well with streetcar lanes outside of traffic lanes instead.

      5. I think that’s the idea anyhow– there’s always the floated idea of shutting 1st to traffic in a large swath by the market, but this is just as good.

  12. I like the idea of Streetcars throughout the city and hope that the city decides to continue with its plans for additional ones. They add a lot of character to a city and are a good tourist attraction. They don’t have the pace of buses and sometimes they may not even be the fastest way through downtown when compared to walking, but hey we need more vehicles off the street and the more that we get them off the road way, the faster that streetcars can travel.

    Someone mentioned going up Queen Anne Hill and that would be excellent – maybe we could get an SF-type Cablecar!

    It would be nice to get another line up and running sooner rather than later. How quickly could we finish a line to the University’s west flank to nicely complement Light Rail on the east side?


    1. It is okay if the streetcar is slower than walking? That is going to convince people to get out of their cars? HA!

    2. The nice thing about rail (in general) as well is that it makes it more obvious where the dang thing goes, as opposed to a bus. Hopping on a bus is always an adventure if you’re not super familiar with the area.

      And I believe there are still cables running under Queen Anne Ave N up the hill. That’s one of the reasons why that new park at the base is called the Counterbalance. So an SF-style cable car wouldn’t be totally uncalled for.

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