Since its launch a year ago, the First Hill Streetcar (FHSC) has struggled operationally. It takes a wildly variable 20-35 minutes end to end, barely besting a walking pace. Being in mixed traffic, except for a short section of 14th Avenue, renders it useless during periods of gridlock. Its frequency is poor and unreliable.
The many compromises that made Broadway what it is today (retained parking, driving/streetcar lanes, a meandering fixed rail alignment, and a cycle track) mean that the right-of-way (ROW) is fundamentally unfixable without tearing out the rails and starting over. The parking lanes that flank the travel lanes are too narrow and piecemeal to be repurposed, and removing the cycle track wouldn’t help much either.
But SDOT has a few ideas for improving the line at the margins, and they plan on implementing some of them beginning this summer. Signal improvements on Jackson Street will be the first improvements, with lengthened east-west signals and transit signal priority.
After some additional design and feasibility work, SDOT will look at adding a Business Access and Transit (BAT) lane on southbound Broadway between Pike and Marion, the only place on the FHSC corridor with surplus ROW. In this section, there is no parking in the southbound direction and the streetcar hugs the curb. This leaves a roughly 9′ median lane that currently lies empty. In a blog post last week, SDOT said that it intends to try to convert this median space into a southbound general purpose travel lane, turning the southbound streetcar lane into a BAT lane. Functionally, this means only streetcars, buses, and right turns will be permitted.
Converting the center lane to a through lane will remove left turns from Broadway to Pike and/or Union. SDOT will install dedicated right turn cycles to clear the lane of turning vehicles, which should improve flow but will marginally delay pedestrians looking to cross Pike, Union, or Madison.
Lastly, SDOT will also tinker with one of the slowest parts of the trip, the crossing of the clashing grid of Yesler, Boren, and 12th. SDOT will ban PM peak left turns and retime the signal at 12th/Yesler.
For all its flaws, 3,000-3,500 people per day are riding the FHSC, and it does represent the best way to get between Broadway, Swedish, and the Yesler Terrace now that Route 9 is peak only and Route 60 deviates to 9th Avenue. So though design constraints will keep SDOT from radical improvements, each of these changes should noticeably help get the streetcar moving a bit better. SDOT estimates travel savings of 3-4 minutes once all improvements are in place.