As longtime readers know, I was on the citizen advisory board for Seattle’s latest Transit Master Plan. I can hardly take the credit (or blame) for what it contains, but I was generally supportive of the plan’s emphasis on streetcar corridors. Streetcar skepticism is a completely coherent viewpoint for transit advocates to have, and I don’t consider myself a full-throated advocate for them, so I thought I’d explain some of my reasoning on this subject.
1. There’s a very real chance that Sound Transit isn’t able to make a big new investment in our working lifetimes, so we’d better have a backup plan. For a big new package to arise, the legislature, Sound Transit board, and voters all have to agree. The Board is probably on our side, but the legislature is almost always terrible, and the electorate is a wild card based on the conditions at that particular election.
This is not a message of despair. There is reason to worry and cause to have a backup plan, but also enough of a chance for success that working hard for it is worthwhile. Nevertheless, it’s a smaller effort to get Seattle leadership and voters on board, plus a solid grassroots push for priority treatments. It’s second best but I prefer it to the status quo.
2. From technical and financial standpoint, a Fremont/Ballard streetcar is a complement to Link through Interbay, not competition. A line that intersects Link in two places builds network effects with the rest of the rapid transit network, in the same way that an Eastlake streetcar complements North Link. The point of the streetcar is not to connect Ballard quickly with downtown, but to connect Fremont and South Lake Union quickly with each other and with the endpoints.
Financially, the streetcar is an order of magnitude cheaper than a subway. It’s not an either/or, it’s a rounding error for a grade-separated project.
3. Politically, it might be viewed as a replacement rather than a complement. I know of no way to guarantee the actions of the Sound Transit Board in 2016 or 2020, nor the effectiveness of various neighborhood actors. I do know that suburban leaders have been singularly focused on completing the Link regional spine, requiring a tax rate that will generate billions of dollars that must be spent in Seattle and Shoreline: far more money than the streetcar network could possibly absorb. All that said, I think it’s well worth the time of anyone concerned about this to let their representatives know that a streetcar, while welcome, is not an adequate replacement.
Any transit improvement in that area can be viewed as diminishing the impetus for grade separation. Should we really stop trying to improve RapidRide D?
4. The other risk is of halfhearted implementation, which worsens the cost/benefit analysis. Like any idea, the prospects are bad if you assume poor execution. The McGinn administration’s apparent lack of attention to this issue on First Hill is a serious cause for concern. To me, a MAX-like level of quality is a slam dunk; if I knew for sure a Fremont streetcar would provide little benefit over the 40, I’d vote against it. But once again, we can shape these events and there is no need for despair at this stage in the process.
5. It’s true that a BRT solution wins some of the gains at a lower cost, as the Transit Master Plan explained. I wouldn’t hesitate to support a BRT solution that survived the process, but am equally supportive of spending more to get a higher quality line. The streetcar provides stronger branding (and thus more riders), more capacity, a driver free of distraction from passengers, and a low likelihood of backsliding on qualities like off-board payment. I’m for building awesome transit in Seattle – not finding ways where we can cut corners on quality.