We complete our weary journey through Seattle’s High Capacity Transit study by looking at the First Avenue Streetcar. There was no BRT option evaluated here. Although a streetcar has 24 times more capital expense than an enhanced bus, it has triple the number of new riders and runs near capacity throughout the day. In fact, the First Avenue Streetcar ranks third according to my favorite efficiency metric, ANC/NR, behind the 4th/5th streetcar couplet and Eastlake BRT, at $2.59. The bus is considerably worse at $3.14.

To wrap things up, here’s a handy summary chart of the 11 options with some of the key metrics:

Corridor Length (mi) Mode Capital ($m) Op ($m) Time Saved (min) Daily Riders ANC/NR Ann. GHG Change (mt)
Westlake 7.0 Rail 327 9 11 26000 $4.53 -427
BRT 111 8 11 21000 $3.11 -400
Bus 17 10 2 16000 $4.74 +1211
Eastlake 6.1 Rail 253 9 15 25000 $2.73 -405
BRT 83 8 15 20000 $2.28 -376
Bus 28 11 2 15000 $5.83 -328
Madison 2.1 BRT 81 5 8 14000 $2.96 -80
Bus 20 6 1 12500 $4.16 -56
1st 2.3 Rail 121 5 1 12600 $2.59 +1
Bus 5 3 1 6200 $3.14 +19
4th/5th 1.1 Rail 74 5 0 11500 $1.71 -12

In spite of what some commenters seem to think, I’ve actively refrained from endorsing any particular mode or corridor in this survey. What’s best really depends on what you value most and the external financial situation. Politics matters, too: even if these projects are more cost-effective than those out in other neighborhoods, the plan is going to have to spread some love out to the other priority corridors to win a citywide ballot.

67 Replies to “TMP HCT Analysis (VI): First Avenue”

  1. I’m a little bit confused by all these studies. HCT study, Transit Long Range Plan, Streetcar Master Plan, etc. Where does this series stand in the hierarchy? Who’s doing all of these redundant studies and why?

    1. There is no such thing as a Streetcar Master Plan or a Transit Long Range Plan. This is the High Capacity Transit portion of the city’s Transit Master Plan. The city is updating its Transit Master Plan, which was last updated in 2005. This isn’t redundant, it’s just normal planning. You may be thinking of the Streetcar Study from several years ago, but that was just a very basic look at possible corridors and didn’t include anywhere close to this level of analysis. It was also flawed because it chose the mode (streetcar) first, rather than looking at corridors and evaluating different modes.

      1. I was just looking at that report and wondering about the relationship myself. It does appear that 3 of the corridors in the TMP analysis (CC1, 11, and 8) are virtually identical to the corridors suggested in the Seattle Streetcar Network Report from 2008. I’m guessing the consultants were aware of this existing work and perhaps that is why the proposed alignments are so similar. Perhaps the agreement between plans will bolster the case for rail/streetcar instead of bus on these corridors.

      2. They are the same corridors because they are obviously good corridors for high ridership! Eastlake is the most direct non-highway route to the U District and Westlake is the most direct route to Fremont. The current consultants also have to recognize that streetcars could benefit from being extensions of the existing streetcar in SLU.

  2. why no stops planned between Bell St. and Denny Way …

    considering the amount of people who live in that area … you’d think there’d be at least one stop between those two

      1. There are no buses on 1st. There used to be, but they have been moved over to 3rd.

      2. That’s not my understanding, and I hope I’m correct. 3rd Ave is a much better place for busses.

      3. Yeah, I’ve never heard anything about it being temporary. It’s way better having them on 3rd. For example, getting to Ballard used to be annoying because you had to decide whether to catch the 17 on 3rd or catch the 15 or 18 on 1st. Now they are all in the same place. Bus malls are good in a long, skinny downtown like we have. That said, 1st could use a local service and this streetcar would serve that job nicely.

    1. The study predicts an end-to-end time savings of ONE minute! Seriously?

      But I’ll again suggest the idea of running the streetcar around (or through) the Seattle Center and connecting it to the existing South Lake Union line to create a circle line running King Street Station-1st Avenue-Seattle Center-South Lake Union-Westlake-4th/5th Ave-King Street Station (and v.v). Running a circle would increase the east-west functionality of the streetcar somewhat. It would also connect the Seattle Center/South Lake Union neighborhoods that are currently separated by Highway 99.

      1. The data also suggests that the 1st Ave SC will actually INCREASE GHG emissions.

        The increase is pretty small, and it is less than the GHG emissions for the bus option, but it is an oddly interesting anomaly – particularly since the other rail options show significant reductions in GHG emissions.


      2. This is such a short line that time savings are not really the point. Rapid Transit is important when going a long-distance. For short distances you just want a circulator that can extend your walking distance and allow you to access more places in a given amount of time. People criticize the Portland Streetcar for not being fast enough, but that’s not the point of it! It’s like a downtown shuttle, but you know exactly where it goes and it’s more comfortable.

      3. To me the key would be service frequency, though capacity is also a worthy consideration. Running a streetcar is cheaper than running a bus, so in the long run after the initial capital costs are absorbed you could end up with a much more reliable service.

        I walk from downtown to close to the proposed Denny stop on this corridor as part of my commute because the waiting time for connecting buses is too long to make it worth my time. If the streetcar was running every 10-15 minutes or more it would pay to make the connection rather than walk.

      4. Running a streetcar is cheaper than running a bus,

        No it’s not, check out the cost per hour for the SLUT and Tacoma Link. It starts to approach the same level of cost per boarding when ridership is about 150% of what a bus can carry. For the same operating cost you can have roughly twice the frequency with an ETB.

      5. I’m with the Beacon Hill guy.

        $121 million spent. 1 minute saved.

        And an average wait time worse than the interlined wait time we hypothetically have now.

        Oh, and the capacity chart, based on 8-10 minute headways, mysteriously cuts off at 7:30 PM. (Can you say, “Surprise! Anemic evening service!”?)

        This whole series is giving me an aneurysm.

      6. I guess I’d like to know the baseline for that 1-minute savings. Current buses, in addition to their interlined unreliability, can take anywhere from 7-20 minutes to cover the route, depending on wheelchairs, lights, traffic, and driver ability/apathy.

        If the one minute is based on median scheduled trip time, it might still represent a significant savings over actual time. But if it’s merely a minute saved off median actual trip time, it should crawl into a hole and never bother to show its face ’round here again.

        The only major benefit that could arise from this would be the elimination of RapidRide’s West Mercer detour. If that isn’t on the table, then the right hand has some explaining to do to the left.

        For this thing to be truly worthwhile, they would need to run it every 5 minutes, including evenings, thus giving people a worthy incentive to transfer to it and replacing all the end-to-end duplicative one-seat rides (RapidRide detour, 1, 2, and 13). Then the laughable time-in-transit savings might not matter. Otherwise, it’s yet another sub-par par-for-Seattle proposal. Aneurysms for all!

      7. d.p.
        The service frequency is every 15 minutes in the evening which is better than current bus service. As for reliability level boarding, all-door boarding, off-board payment, signal priority, and not having to pull in and out of traffic should help a lot. Additionally there seems to be quite a bit less variability based on the operator with rail than with buses at least as far as I can tell from Link and SLUT. True the reliability improvements could be done with bus service including the level boarding but I think that is much less likely than with a streetcar line.

      8. Chris, I don’t doubt that all of the rail features and, above all, service-pattern uniformity will be a benefit to reliability.

        But 15 minutes at any time is pathetic for any “high demand” corridor — especially one a mere mile or two long. LQA to Pike Street is simply not a distance for which one should have to budget 20-25 into one’s schedule.

        In an alternate-reality universe in which the current 15, 18, 1, 2, and 13 were all perfectly on-schedule at all, maximum evening wait time would 10 minutes and average evening wait time would be around 4.5 minutes.

        If you don’t think your “high demand” corridor can support better than 15 minute service, then you probably shouldn’t be calling it “high demand” or spending millions to build rail on it.*

        *My personal opinion: LQA is absolutely “high demand,” and whatever transit solutions it gets in the near or long term absolutely should be treated to <10-minute evening service. The flip side of the coin is Eastlake, where the no-better-than-15 evening service estimate is probably correct and should cast suspicion on whether it's really a "high demand" corridor (once Link exists).

    2. I agree. Just like with Eastlake, it makes sense to have one more stop given the density.

      1. Well, you know, the hills and the soil and stuff…

        Seattle’s like the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” of stop spacing determinations. Except without the “just right” Baby Bear.

    3. That area really screams out for at least one stop in the middle. For that matter considering how slow the First Avenue corridor is going to be anyway they might as well just treat the bloody thing as a local circulator and put stops every 1/4 mile all the way from Mercer/Roy to King Street.

  3. Martin, this series has been a great read and super informative. Could you link the corridor options in this summary back to your original posts where applicable? Thank you!

  4. Again, I think you’d get a completely different result for the 1st Ave SC if you did this study assuming an eventual Central Link caliber LR line on 2nd. I think such a LR line along something like the greenline route is what we should be building next (after ST2) for LR in Seattle. When it gets built, it will completely invalidate the results of this study per the 1st Ave SC.

    I’d focus on the higher priority SC routes and on getting that 2nd LR line built, and in the meantime just resurrect the Waterfront SC. Yes, it was mainly a tourist line, but it carried a fair number of people and it ran at a profit (supposedly).

    Note: Other than the maintenance barn, part of the reason behind not restoring WFSC service was an anticipated long duration service interruption due to building the AW Viaduct replacement. However, now that the deep bore tunnel has been selected that reasoning is no longer valid.

    1. RE: WFSC service, it’s not that simple. The viaduct still has to be torn down, and with the massive overhaul of the waterfront following soon after, there would be major disruptions to any WFSC service. Its future is still totally up in the air, unfortunately, and will only be settled once the final design for the waterfront is known. I believe influencing that design process is the best hope for restoring WFSC service.

      1. Tear down of the viaduct will be a relatively minor event taking just a week or so. The biggest problem will be protecting the adjacent buildings, but it’s just not that hard to bring down something as fragile as the viaduct. And being linear in nature, they can bring in a lot of equipment simultaneously.

        Building the new park and boulevard wouldn’t have much of an impact either. There should be plenty of options for efficient cutover from the current WFSC line to whatever is determined to be the final alignment.

        Maybe someone should approach the deep bore tunnel team about resurrecting the WFSC as part of the project…it’s cost effective and it wouldn’t impact their schedule.

    2. resurrect the Waterfront SC. Yes, it was mainly a tourist line, but it carried a fair number of people and it ran at a profit (supposedly).

      Back in 1991 the waterfront streetcar was costing about $90 and hour to operate. Converted to present day value that would be about $140/hr; well above the cost of operating a bus. Farebox recovery of operating costs (not maintenance which is very costly for vintage rolling stock) was only 15%. Anyone that thinks it would be simple or cheap to rebuild the waterfront streetcar line needs to read:

      The Seattle Waterfront Streetcar — The Steep Grade from Idea to Reality by George Benson.

      Which should probably be in the reference quotes as this myth is propagated about as often as “sustainable cities” and “density decreases cost”.

      1. Density sure as heck decreased my costs of living. It makes transit a bunch more cost effective, too.

      2. Dude, that 1991 data is totally out of date. And $90/hr is a bargain, even $140/hr is a bargain.

        And you need to consider all revenue sources, not just the farebox, when determining whether an operational subsidy is required.

      3. When the WFSC stopped running in 2005, the annual ridership was close to 500,000 riders a year.

      4. Dude, the $140 doesn’t cover the maintenance part of the O&M figure we talk about in current day costs per hour for streetcars and buses. The WFS is a low capacity vehicle that requires an entirely different electrical grid than our current ETBs and streetcar. If it’s a bargain then let a private contractor run it like our other tourist line, the monorail.

      5. I’m with Bernie on this one. Rather than spending money on a suboptimal waterfront alignment, raise some cash to have the Benson cars converted to run on whatever voltage the modern cars run on and spend a few bucks to pour concrete wheelchair ramps on the platform to make them accessible. Then they can integrate fully with the rest of our network, it’ll be cheaper than rebuilding the old alignment, and they’ll be used and seen by more people to boot.

      6. Might want to redo the brakes while they’re at it. Interesting history of the Melbourne trams on Wikipedia. Keep in mind that just about everything on these vintage vehicles needs to be hand crafted and export from Oz has be banned. As far as wheelchair ramps I’m pretty sure the trams aren’t ADA compliant and don’t know if they are even accessible. Don’t they have steps inside? Historic Streetcars in San Francisco

        In the late 1970s, modern trams finally began replacing the old W-class cars. In 1984, Muni purchased No. 496 (along with No. 586, kept as a spare). The tram’s smooth ride made it an immediate hit in San Francisco. With volunteer help from Market Street Railway, No. 496 has been cosmetically restored, made wheelchair-accessible, and given a GPS system. Otherwise, it’s essentially unchanged from its 56 years of service in Australia.

        The cars should probably be turned over to MEHVA. They’ll likely never run again in Seattle without a ton of volunteer support. They’d be a great start on a public transportation museum.

      7. The other day, I found it necessary to use the Waterfront Streetcar to refute the “rail — it’s permanent, you can take it to the bank!” argument on Slog.

        No (or minimal) dedicated infrastructure, no guarantee of permanence.

      8. I guess I’d like to know the baseline for that 1-minute savings. Current buses, in addition to their interlined unreliability, can take anywhere from 7-20 minutes to cover the route, depending on wheelchairs, lights, traffic, and driver ability/apathy.

        If the one minute is based on median scheduled trip time, it might still represent a significant savings over actual time. But if it’s merely a minute saved off median actual trip time, it should crawl into a hole and never bother to show its face ’round here again.

        The only major benefit that could arise from this would be the elimination of RapidRide’s West Mercer detour. If that isn’t on the table, then the right hand has some explaining to do to the left.

        For this thing to be truly worthwhile, they would need to run it every 5 minutes, including evenings, thus giving people a worthy incentive to transfer to it and replacing all the end-to-end duplicative one-seat rides (RapidRide detour, 1, 2, and 13). Then the laughable time-in-transit savings might not matter. Otherwise, it’s yet another sub-par par-for-Seattle proposal. Aneurysms for all!

    3. This thing could be built in 2-3 years, while that light rail line (if it ever happens) is at least 20 years away. How about we build lines that are useful in the near future? By the time we build light rail, there will be demand for both lines anyway.

      1. I’d argue there’s demand for both lines right now. Belltown’s rental market is rather strong, but the connections to downtown are poor—you’re stuck getting on a bus that’s already packed with people from farther north trying to get downtown.

        But you’re right about timelines. I would just like to be sure that building the light rail line won’t disrupt surface transit.

      2. There’s definitely demand, but I’m talking about when they can realistically be built. Sound Transit has maxed out its taxing authority, for one thing. So there has to be a big fight with the legislature for more. Then the alignment studies have to be done. Then we will have a public vote on ST3. I don’t see that happening for another 5-10 years. As we know, ST is extremely slow in building its projects because that saves money. Most of the ST2 projects are going to take 12-15 years from vote to completion. Therefore it seems like westside light rail is 20-30 years in the future. Unless the feds go with LA Mayor Villaraigosa’s 10/30 plan, where the gov’t lends money directly to cities so they can build projects in 10 years instead of 30. That would speed things up considerably.

      3. Zef,
        I keep hearing the plan is to have the ST3 vote in 2016. Even without new taxing authority there will be some money to build projects as ST finishes up the remaining Sound Move and ST2 projects. Only a portion of ST tax revenues will be needed for O&M costs and servicing bonds.

        I’d guess ST3 projects would be scheduled for completion in the 2028-2031 time frame (again based on ST2). So 15-20 years in the future rather than 20-30, but still a ways out. I’m guessing that if a modest ST3 is chosen it will most likely fund the HCT portions of the TMP rather than a “link quality” line from downtown to Ballard. Especially since a new downtown tunnel will be quite expensive.

    4. I cannot support the 1st Ave streetcar until the proposed configuration (left lane, center station) is PROVEN viable. I believe it’s neither possible nor desirable. If it were possible, detailed drawings would already be made public.

      The main problem I have with the 4th/5th Ave streetcar couplet is its duplicative service alongside bus lines. The Lk Union Streetcar need only extend to 1st Ave to a terminus there or a turnaround via Stewart-to-1st-to-Pike-to-6th. This shorter extension would cross main n/s transit corridors and serve main destinations.

      I support reinstallation of the Waterfront Streetcar Line with the new model cars. However, the proposed configuration for Alaskan Way (4-lane north of Marion to 6-lane south) ‘cannot’ accommodate it, nor is the configuration ideal for managing traffic, nor safe pedestrian crossing, nor bicycling between speeding traffic and parked cars. SDOT employees favor a streetcar line for themselves, no matter how duplicative, but fall short of designing an ideal Alaskan Way for others.

      1. Left-lane center platform streetcar and light rail alignments are used all over the world, there is nothing magic about them.

        As for the Waterfront streetcar, I agree it should be brought back. However rather than running modern cars I’d prefer it be kept as a heritage line like the F-Market line in San Francisco. Rebuild the Melbourne cars similar to how SF did theirs and add some other vintage cars from around the US and world.

        Even with 6 lanes on Alaska Way there is still plenty of room in the ROW for a couple of streetcar tracks. Personally I’d like to see center running like the Embarcadero but whatever works best is fine.

  5. Both the Westlake/Ballard line and the Eastlake/U District line include the 4th/5th line downtown. Where is the analysis of what happens to 4th/5th if both the Westlake and Eastlake lines are built????

    1. Rail corridors should have frequent service if they are going to justify the cost of building the rail infrastructure. There will be plenty of capacity on the 4th/5th couplet for several lines to use them. I think the biggest limitation on capacity will be the terminal/turn-around capacity at the end of the line.

    2. Remember that they have maintenance barns in SLU and Little Saigon, plus there will be other turnarounds. Not every streetcar will have to go the whole route.

  6. Maybe once this is built and tourists have a better link to Seattle Center we can finally tear down the decrepit and useless monorail. Sacrilege, I know! But seriously, I don’t understand the attachment people have to it.

    1. It pays for itself. Obviously enough people like it.

      I’d like it better if we extended it to Pike Place. Keep the price high; it’s a tourist attraction.

    2. I find it really pleasant to ride my bike under the monorail. Traffic is much calmer on 5th Ave than most other places in town.

    3. Riding it is like riding a terrifying amusement park ride, but without the fun.

      1. I think the monorail is lots of fun to ride. But it’s useless as transit. By all means, keep it up as long as it’s profitable for the operator. But we need real transit through Belltown and into Lower Queen Anne.

      2. I have used the monorail precisely once for actual transportation purposes.

        Here were the precise requisite conditions:

        1. I had been out of town half the month, and therefore was using my ORCA e-purse for most of my transit needs (rather than my typical monthly pass).

        2. I was catching a 2-hour movie, and therefore knew for a fact that an ORCA transfer would be useless to me.

        3. I did not have enough time to walk the route.

        4. One-way on the monorail is actually cheaper than any single Metro fare.

        I used it. It got me there in two minutes. I made my movie and was thankful not to have had to deal with Metro uncertainty.

        I have never used it again.

        Of course, if Metro (or the city) paid a minimal fee to the monorail operator to all ORCA monthly-pass holders to use it (not e-purse users, because then we’d likely have to compensate the monorail for much more lost revenue), I’d probably use it once a week. It’s almost never at capacity, so the monorail’s marginal cost would be negligible.

      3. It’s not useless as transit. It has a 10 minute frequency and gets you right from Link to the Seattle Center. And without ever having to go outside. It would be more useful if it landed on the edge of the Center rather than the middle, but it’s not bad as it is. Needing “real transit” doesn’t mean you need to rip out existing transit – let’s have both.

        If they’d only keep longer hours, I’d probably use it as commuter transit on occasion.

      4. Matt, their website says 7:30 AM to 11:00 PM. I think that’s longer than it was just after their post-collision repair.

        Again, it would cost almost nothing for the monorail company and the city to let me use it without adding to my $81 or $90 monthly transportation bill. Few current cash-paying riders (tourists and infrequent suburban visitors) have monthly passes.

        They should just make this happen.

      5. [d.p.] Those aren’t bad hours, though a little earlier would help. It’s the easiest and fastest way to get to Link from the area – I’d bet I could even walk down from the top of the hill to it and beat the #2 or 13 to Link*. Orca integration would be amazing.

        * Let’s see: 2 minute ride every 10 minutes. It takes 8 minutes to walk down the hill, and probably another 4 to the Monorail. That’s 14 minutes if you time it right. That even makes it worth walking right past a waiting 2X, if you’re trying to get to Link.

      6. I don’t know your hours or your final destination, but remember that 7:30 means downtown by 7:32.

        That’s the nice thing about actual rapid transit: you can actually eradicate from your mind the presumption — inculcated by years of long, slow, arduous commutes — that the rush needs to start before 7 in the morning!

      7. The city needs to get the Monorail operator on-board with ORCA. You could deal with the revenue sharing issues the same way WSF and Kitsap Transit do where they require their own passes and fares be loaded on the card and transfers aren’t accepted from other systems. While not ideal or entirely seamless it would help integrate the Monorail with the rest of the transit system.

        Also it would be worth extending the operating hours of the Monorail a bit. The city might have to subsidize this but starting at 6:30 AM and ending at Midnight would increase the utility of the Monorail a bit.

      8. Nah… I strongly disagree.

        If no other fare products are valid on the monorail, then there’s no benefit at all to including them in the system. No monthly pass-holder or routine transit user is ever going to add $2.00 to their transit costs for a 1.5-mile leg of their journey.

        That’s why monorail riders (tourists, festival attendees) and ORCA users (monthlies, regulars, visitors staying more than a day or two) are mutually exclusive today. Zero fare integration offers no benefit to anyone, and would be a bad investment for the city or county.

  7. Idea: Gondola from Galer & QA right down to the monorail. That’s a 3 minute gondola trip followed by a 2 minute monorail trip to downtown.

    1. You mean up the counterbalance?

      No. That would require buses, and BRT can’t handle the projected demand downtown. This would be a ID-CBT-Belltown circulator exclusively.

      1. (or a counterbalance attachment to streetcars, but that’s probably too much of an out-of-the-box idea for a study like this)

    2. (Still imagining a downtown-Ballard subway with a stop at Seattle center, and two trolley routes on Queen Anne: first the 13, and second a two-way loop from the station following the 1 to the end, then to the end of the 2, then back along the 2 to QA/Galer, then along the 13 to QA/Boston, then along the 3/4 back to the station.)

  8. Stupid question on streetcars vs. BRT:

    Will the streetcars shut down at night for maintenance? If so, is the plan to provide night owl bus service along the same lines?

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