As the streetcar debate heats up once again, I want to point out a few things that we seem to be losing track of as we discuss future systems.
We are designing a streetcar route not a light rail route. Tacoma Link for example is light rail but using a streetcar to provide the service. The way it is ran; a single track system with a long “passing siding” with light rail signaling is similar to what you would see in terms of Sacramento’s Folsom light rail line.
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A streetcar by definition is to be ran with mixed traffic, buses, cars, etc. It is not meant to be a high-speed, high-frequency with minimal stops type of sustained mode of transportation (IE: Light Rail)
We also need to keep in mind streetcars are very successful, depending on how it is implemented. Portland Streetcar was successful because of the original location of the line was put an area that was slated to become dense residential with easy access to Downtown Portland. With that process, the streetcar averaged 3500 passengers a day. Aggressive expansion was also a key part of the streetcars stunning success and which it is also averaging 11,500 to 13,500 a day currently. Thanks to the streetcar, Portland has now seen $4 billion dollars worth of development and once “empty lots and warehouses” are now thriving communities, such as South Waterfront or the Pearl District.
Portland Streetcar needs to remain a key model into making a successful streetcar network here in our region. We can not play into the rules that streetcars need to be in the center lane or streetcars need to have a dedicated right-of-way. Coordination between the traffic lights, good signal priority and keeping the signals coordinated are the goal when it comes to keeping the service moving and thus removing the mindset that the system is slow and unreliable.
Portland Streetcar remains running at 13 minute headway’s and have done so since its start. When the Portland East Loop opens in 2012, it is expected to raise to nearly 16,000 daily riders.
So what is Seattle to do? Citizens that want a more efficient streetcar needs to push the City of Seattle to get the Streetcar running faster by adding signal preemption and priority at all lights. There is no way to reduce the headway without using the standby streetcar. This would be possible and realistic during peak hours but definitely not for off-peak for the foreseeable future. We must remove the mindset that the system is slow by keeping the streetcar in-motion and we must expand the route towards the University of Washington, even if it stops short of the University Bridge. I would rather spend the money to get the streetcar to the University of Washington and eliminating the Route 70 and utilizing those buses on more frequent service for the routes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 49 than the First Avenue line and I wholeheartedly believe that until First Avenue can be completely made a 4 lane roadway with no parking between Royal Brougham and Denny Way, the First Avenue line will not work as it is intended to.
I am sure others will disagree, which is fine. We cannot all have an agreement 100% on items such as this but one thing for sure, a streetcar is a streetcar. We can not have a streetcar and expect it to be a light rail system. It just will not work and will only set yourself up for disappointment with that mindset. As Portland did learn however, spacing stops is a good way of boosting ridership and speed. Spacing stops every 3 to 4 blocks instead of every 2-3 blocks and allowing stop bypassing is the right direction to having a solid streetcar network.
Our goal now should be to focus on the First Hill route and to continue to develop the South Lake Union route along with focusing on Second Avenue for a main transit corridor. First Avenue will have its time and place but for the future, even with the promise of great ridership numbers, now is just not the right time for it. I would rather see funding for a West Seattle – Ballard light rail line and connecting the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar line together at Eastlake Ave and Harvard Ave than toss my support at First Avenue simply because I believe they would have much more potential among younger riders in allowing the system to move forward. I honestly do not believe Belltown will allow the streetcar to eliminate the on-street parking on First Avenue whatsoever.