It is tough to take the Seattle Streetcar network seriously these days. The reasons are well-known to the STB community and beyond, and are both obvious and many: right-of-way design choices that permanently handicap operations; outrageous cost overruns and design delays due to bizarre procurement decisions; service corridors that make little sense in larger plans; an inability to use political capital to design the system to truly work properly. Even our venerable leading advocacy groups don’t give much love to the streetcar.
Which is all very sad, because some of the world’s finest cities have expansive and useful networks, built for competitive sums of money that are highly effective and quite nice to use. We can, and should, do better. I want to see streetcars made a much more visible part of our transit future, and I believe that it’s possible.
Anecdotally, the existing lines — First Hill and South Lake Union — seem like solutions in search of a problem. How did we get here? And where do we go?
What We Have Today
First Hill is first and foremost a compromise line, and not a very good one at that. First Hill was slated to get a Link station as part of the original 1996 Sound Move program, roughly sited on Madison Street somewhere between Boren Avenue and Broadway. That never came to be, and the staff of this formidable space has argued to find a new solution ever since. Operations are slow, ridership isn’t great, and the efficient connections it is supposed to provide — connect both Capitol Hill and the International District Link stations to the medical centers — are not really that efficient. Also, the years-long delay of start-of-service was a public relations disaster, and its effects remain by tempering local support to extend the line from its northern terminal at Denny Way through the bustling North Broadway business district to a new terminal at or about Aloha Street. At least the view is nice.
South Lake Union is little better. Though recent improvements have helped, they have also been half-hearted: 9 years later and only after the passage of a levy initiative, and still the line shares its right-of-way with bus stops and allows turning opportunities for vehicle traffic. The southern terminal at Westlake “station” is sited at such a distance from the transit tunnel entrances on Pine Street and 5th Avenue that it is difficult to consider them part of a transit “hub”. Those logistics problems skirt the central question: really, who is this line for? What was the issue it tried to solve in the first place? Bus routes C and 40 run more often and cover almost the entire walkshed. The entire line is just over a mile and a quarter, a distance most able-bodied individuals can cover on foot in 20 to 30 minutes, and unusually for Seattle, it is completely flat.
Thankfully, the biggest lessons seem to have been learned for the Center City Connector: dedicated right-of-way, coordinated signal timing (for First Hill too), smart station placement. However, enthusiasm for additional streetcar investments entirely disappeared after the multiple problems that plagued the opening of the First Hill line, by which time the Center City Connector had already been approved and design work had begun. (And, the CCC won’t fix the structural issues at either end.)
All of which is to say that there are plenty of opportunities still available. Streetcars remain cheap to build per-mile compared to light rail at any grade. They are a viable solution to last-mile problems with proper design and frequent service.They permanently convert bus corridors to rail corridors, allowing bus hours to be reinvested elsewhere. They can present parts of town without great connections with better ones.
In the dream-sequence world, the very best system designs will have:
- Exclusive right-of-way
- Intelligent traffic management at all grade crossings
- Headways of 10 minutes or better at least 16 hours a day (6a-10p), 7 days a week
- Cover an end-to-end distance that’s too far to walk in half an hour…
- …but be generally able to run the entire alignment in less than that same half-hour.
- (I have assumed around 5 miles as a maximum alignment length.)
I present several corridors for consideration, all chosen around the same principle of the last-mile and the idea that the Center City tracks are to be used to the fullest:
- The J line, of branches J1 and J2: 1st and Lenora to MLK/Cherry (J1) via 23rd Ave and to 31st/Jackson (J2), both via Center City.
- The B line: 1st and Broad to 7th and Jackson via Center City
- The CA line: California and Admiral to California and Morgan, with a potential extension to the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal
- The G line: Sodo to Georgetown, 4th and Lander to 13th and Airport Way
- The F1 line: University District to Fremont via 45th, Stone Way, and North 36th Street
- The F2 line: Fremont to Ballard, North 36th to Leary/Market
- The LC line: Northgate to Lake City via NE 125th Street
And following all this, First Hill and South Lake Union are unified into the M — main — line.
Map this all out, and a coherent downtown network forms, along with isolated puzzle pieces elsewhere in town. Rails begin to reach places where even ST3 won’t go — the Central District, Fremont — and it fills in the gaps between Link stations. I personally see the J line as the best investment, though it will take some work to convince the residents of that given their recent experience with the 23rd Avenue repaving project.
This is not a slam dunk by any means: there are many concerns, nor is this silver bullet. The logistics of line terminations and turnarounds along the Center City tracks have been abstracted over for now. Isolated lines require the necessity of having to construct maintenance and storage facilities on each one, a prospect that is both expensive and possibly politically difficult. There wasn’t an obvious opportunity in Rainier Valley given geography and the proximity of the existing Link line, and there’s no answer here for crosstown service along the Metro 8 corridor. Capital construction anywhere is disruptive to residents and businesses, and some neighborhoods have grown weary. The potential for displacement is real. The custom fleet designed for First Hill works, but is not an off-the-shelf design and comes with additional cost. And last but not least, someone will have to pay for all of this while justifying its opportunity cost.
I do not expect all of this to ever come to fruition, but merely to serve as the starting point for envisioning a better future network. The thinking has to start somewhere, and now that ST3 and Move Seattle have been approved in consecutive years, there are opportunities to fill in the gaps with long-term solutions. Our city is already densifying and I believe this is a chance to enable those instincts even further.