Seattle Streetcar (Image: SDOT)

10 years ago this month, to great fanfare, Seattle’s modern streetcar line opened, a 1.3-mile route between Westlake and South Lake Union.

Though it seems insignificant now, cast your mind back to 2007. The Seattle Monorail Project died just two years earlier, after costing the city $125M. A month before the streetcar opening, the Roads and Transit measure to expand light rail had just been defeated. Many people were openly questioning whether rail-based transit had a future in Seattle (Not coincidentally, 2007 is the year STB was founded). Thousands of people crowded into Westlake square to see our shiny new toy. I was working in the neighborhood at the time and recall the insane crowds on opening day.

The Seattle Streetcar system has had its ups and downs over the years. 10 years seems like a good time to look back at the system, and forward as the Center City Connector moves forward.

After ripping up the last of the city’s streetcars in the 1941, Seattle’s modern streetcar system kicked off with the South Lake Union line (setting aside the historic waterfront line). Half the funding was provided by local billionaire Paul Allen, who waned the line as an amenity to kickstart development in what was then the sleepy warehouse district known as South Lake Union.

Since then, mayors and Council members have had varying degrees of enthusiasm for streetcars. The streetcar system has taken on a totemic quality that made it about more than just a transit mode choice: if you were for it, it means you were for real estate development and “placemaking.” To be against it was to be for spending money on More Important Things. As with many things in this town, it became a question of What Do We Want to Be When We Grow Up?

SLU or Bust

Streetcar fever began in 2003 under the Nickels administration, and picked up steam under Mayor McGinn. The $45M SLU line would spur development, or so the theory went, and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Real Estate would pick up half the tab in the form of a special local improvement district (LID) imposed on (mostly) Vulcan-owned properties along the route.

The 1.3-mile mixed-traffic line featured 15-minute headways and I recall (though can’t find the source) a local writer quip that it had a cost per mile more expensive than jet travel.

In 2008, a year after the line opened, we were writing about how to fix it. It ultimately got better with exclusive ROW in 2015, although increased service on the 40 and C buses made people less inclined to use the streetcar when buses were readily available and just as fast.

Sound Transit and First Hill

At the same time, on almost a completely separate path, Seattle had to figure out what to do with $150M in mitigation money that Sound Transit was providing in exchange for not building a First Hill station. The First Hill Streetcar was the result.

Various alignments were discussed, and the final route was approved in 2010 (we were skeptical of the final routing). There was also a multi-year delay as the custom battery and regenerative braking technology was worked out.

The Aloha extension on Capitol Hill is currently on hold following lukewarm enthusiasm from the surrounding neighborhood. Today, the FHSC plods along, serving 3,000 daily riders. The city is doing work to speed it up a bit on Broadway, but the route remains slow and circuitous, jockeying for signal priority against higher-ridership E-W bus routes.

Big Dreams

In 2008, just a year after the SLU line opened, the council passed a massive, unfunded streetcar expansion plan, with lines running to UW, Ballard, the CD and Queen Anne.

2008 Streetcar Plan

These were heady days for the national streetcar revival movement, which was questioned by many transit advocates but hard to ignore: American downtowns were booming, and the Obama-era Department of Transportation pressing their considerable fingers on the scales by shipping barrels of money to any city that raised its hand and asked for a streetcar.

The recession and a mayoral transition slowed things down, but Mayor McGinn’s 2011 Transit Master Plan envisioned potential lines to Ballard and the University District as well as Belltown and Uptown.

At the same time, the mayor and city council put a 10-year $60 Vehicle License Fee on the 2011 ballot. It would have provided capital funding for transit improvements, although council tried to insert a proviso preventing any money from going to streetcars. It ended up being moot, as the VLF failed at the polls that year.  Streetcar expansion talk went on hold as the recession dragged on.

Central Streetcar, by Oran

The Future: Center City Connector

With two separate streetcar lines serving different parts of downtown, conversation naturally turned to how we might connect them. In 2019 the Center City Connector will open, doing just that. The CCC will run on 1st avenue, though the 2011 TMP studied a 4th/5th couplet. The federal government will pick up just under half of the $166M cost.

The CCC Could have followed in the footsteps of the other lines and run in mixed traffic with low headways. To their credit, the city opted for 5-minute headways, center platforms and exclusive lanes. It means that, of all the streetcars built in America over the last decade, the CCC will be the highest performing as transit.

While no one would ride the full system from end to end (it wouldn’t be possible, even if you wanted to), certain segments will find an audience. The straight-ish section from SLU to the ID via Pike Market and Pioneer Square serves a diverse set of residential, business, and leisure destinations. With trains every five minutes at peak on the main trunk of the route, and dedicated right-of-way, it ought to be reasonably popular. Estimates are around 25,000 riders per day, which might be optimistic.

Once the CCC is finished, it’s hard to imagine another line getting built. Light rail’s future is more certain, reducing the need for quick fixes. Local streetcar skepticism has increased, and the feds have more or less turned off the cash spigot. The deadly interplay between streetcar tracks and cyclists is problematic as well.

There’s a strong argument that streetcars are a waste of money and we ought to, in Bruce’s words, focus on keeping the buses moving while we built out grade-separated subways. In that view, it’s probably best to stop spending money on streetcars and just fight for the best ST3 alignments and exclusive bus right-of-way (ROW).

But streetcars seem to have a mystical ability to secure federal grant funding and exclusive ROW that would be otherwise unavailable to buses. To wit, the Center City Connector will have exclusive right-of-way for 25,000 riders from day one, while 3rd Avenue, which has been carrying 100,000+ bus riders every day for many years, has only partial bus priority. Politics is weird sometimes.

The best case for streetcars is that they create the political space to take right of way for transit, albeit at a high cost. Such a high cost, in fact, that paying for them generally requires supplemental funds from outside the city’s budget (i.e. the feds, Sound Transit, Paul Allen). They are like the Christmas gift that you would never buy yourself, but that’s just useful enough that you don’t it return to the store. Merry Christmas and Happy Anniversary, Seattle Streetcar!

61 Replies to “Seattle’s Streetcar Turns 10”

  1. I don’t find building a northern extension of the CCC to Belltown and Seattle Center very hard to imagine. It’s the densest census block in the state and ST3 isn’t going anywhere near it. A line up First connecring to Link at the Center would be a very useful piece of infrastructure. The CCC will need to be a success for it to be considered, though.

    1. I am really hoping the CCC is a big hit and the exclusive ROW and signal prioritization are extended to the future Ballard light rail stop by the Seattle Center. This would serve Belltown so well.

    2. A better option is just a bus that has center running doors (like Madison BRT) that runs between Uptown and the CCC on 1st/QA Ave, and then runs along the full length of the CCC to the ID. The bus (or trolley) can use the CCC stops and ROW, but switch to BAT lanes west of Pike’s place, and then share 5 stations with the D-line in queen anne. (2 on 1st, 2 on QA, and 3 on Mercer)

      Takes full use of the CCC infrastructure, but no need to tear up the street for new rails.

      1. Wouldn’t this just be Rapid Ride D, realigned, using the same type of buses procured for Rapid Ride G (Madison)?

      2. Agree with AJ — just run buses.

        @Chad — Yeah, it could be. But I could also see the following RapidRide bus route (with buses that have those doors on both sides), to go along with what is planned in the area:

        This would do several things:

        1) Act as an express from 24th to downtown (much faster than the 40).

        2) Also act as an express from much of Ballard as well as Interbay to downtown (by avoiding Queen Anne).

        3) One seat ride from the heart of Greenwood to 24th Ave NW. Both of these areas have grown considerably recently.

        4) Access to 24th NW would be much better from a variety of places. Instead of two transfer (or taking buses way out of the way) riders could make a simple transfer if they were anywhere along Aurora, 8th Avenue NW or Magnolia.

        This could happen after the 40 gets converted to RapidRide. That would mean that much of the route would already have the off board station equipment. The only part that would need new readers is the area on Western and First (north of the streetcar). Once you make the investment in readers and surface right of way, it makes sense to have a variety of routes, especially if a true grid is very difficult to build (and it is, given our geography).

      3. I dunno, reduced cost is the only upside to this idea, and it has a lot of downsides in a corridor that merits the investment.

      4. AJ, we could use a standard bus if we had a signal to let the bus enter a center busway on the diagonal, keeping the right-hand doors to a center platform. Exactly like Bellevue Transit Center.


      5. I think Metro wants to keep the Rapid Riders on 3rd, to facilitate transfers. I’d imagine this route would be a “frequent” route.

        Mark – that won’t work, can’t run contra-flow in the same lane as the streetcars

      6. Just as will certainly happen on Madison and happens today on Battery, the autoistas of Seattle and its environs will violate the Red Lanes with impunity. With a streetcar you can put rumble strips between the tracks or omit the pavers and leave the ties exposed.

        If it looks like a road, selfish drivers will use it if they don’t have to pay a toll.

    3. Agreed, Ron. From BRT to light rail to streetcars, somehow one of our densest neighborhoods keeps getting forgotten. Wonder if there might be private dollars available through the transit component of Key Arena redevelopment. Belltown aside, you are then offering a fast, frequent, one-seat ride from Seattle Center events to Sounder/Amtrak, a premium service running on dedicated ROW with signal prioritization the entire length of the corridor.

  2. Crazy how fast time flies. I remember reading STB back then, I think it was on Google Blogspot? Would be cool to have a retrospective on some of the top articles of the past 10 years.

    I might be one of the few who sees the utility in streetcars but obviously they have to be done right. Seattle is doing a better job than some and the CCC will make the two existing lines far more useful. I might actually start riding them on purpose instead of as a novelty. I also think extending the 1st Ave line through Belltown to the Seattle Center Link station is a no-brainer.

    1. Yeah, this post made me feel old.

      The rash of stunningly bad streetcar projects has understandably grown the ranks of critics. Also important to remember, though, that this little board comprised mostly of us layfolk doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of the transit world as a whole. Was just editing planning documents the other day highlighting “rapid streetcar” as a desirable option for a major market.

      1. My guess is you won’t find a single transit expert who says that building a streetcar line like ours makes sense. That is because our streetcars are no bigger than our buses.

        If you want to revitalize a neighborhood, sure. If you want people to ride it for the novelty factor, definitely. But if your goal is to actually provide good mass transit, then streetcars only make sense if the streetcars are bigger than buses, the corridor actually needs it, or you are taking advantage of existing, old railway. None of that is true in our case. The fact that agencies have actually made it worse by not investing in right of way, or running stupid routes is sad, but not the worst part. The worst part was not understanding when streetcars actually make sense, and why.

      2. Where did my post say anything about Seattle’s streetcars? I was clearly speaking about the mode in general.

        Yes, I believe we’ve all heard your opinion about the size of our trains a few times by now, Ross. Good gravy. But, again, vehicle size is just one of several advantages to streetcars. And of course nothing prevents an agency from eventually buying larger vehicles if demand requires. Happening in Toronto right now, where the new streetcars I rode last week had twice the capacity of their old vehicles.

      3. Thank you, IPBL. I can’t count the times I’ve pointed out that there are five- and even seven-section trams running in Europe. The only cost of conversion is lengthening the platforms.

    2. I can’t remember how I came to STB or when. When I think back, “Was it a link from the Seattle Times or did somebody tell me about it?” I just come up blank. I didn’t see the beginning but Adam was still running it. I also read Orphan Road and HugeAssCity but I don’t remember if STB referred me to them or it was the other way. Did Seattle Subway exist then; I encountered them at a Ballard booth and Ben S was the one who convinced me that Seattle and the 45th corridor were ready to invest in grade-separated rail, a dream I had given up on long before because everybody said, “People won’t vote for something that expensive unless it’s a highway.” Does anyone remember my first comments?

      “The Seattle Monorail Project died just two years earlier, after costing the city $125M. A month before the streetcar opening, the Roads and Transit measure to expand light rail had just been defeated. Many people were openly questioning whether rail-based transit had a future in Seattle.”

      That’s right, I forgot about the context. There was a widespread belief that only a very minimal train like this could get a yes vote. The biggest issue people cared about was capital costs, and the fact that private money was paying half was a major selling point. The original Link plan would have been on I-5 north or Eastlake, so it would have been as accessible to Seattle as the 512, meaning an annoying walk from the Ave and a freeway station that would deter people. The urbanists pushed hard and got underground stations at Broadway and University Way, which is more like the Mission and Berkeley; I was so glad it wasn’t crawling slow like the existing light rails of the time. But we still couldn’t get a Rainier Valley tunnel or Aurora/Bitter Lane or Pacific Highway.

      Sometime in the 1990s to 2003 I attended a Seattle open house in Roosevelt on streetcars. The question was whether Seattle should focus future transit on streetcars, buses, or light rail. I said either light rail because it’s fast or buses because they’re cheap and you can deploy more of them, but not streetcars because they’re the worst of both worlds (expensive and not faster than a bus). So that’s how I’ve felt about the SLU streetcar all along.

      1. “The original Link plan would have been on I-5 north or Eastlake, …”

        Huh? What plan would that be? I still have the Nov 1998 DEIS on the Central Link plan in my Google library and I don’t recall that being the case. I do recall the ST staff at that time making the argument for the route running northward to Northgate (an unfunded segment) along 8th Ave NE as the preferred alternative.

      1. Actually, it mostly does work. And it does bring back some old memories. It’s amazing how much our network has improved from that of just 10 years ago. Ten years ago, there was no Link, no RapidRide, just a bunch of numbered bus routes, many running a fraction as often back then as they do today. There was also no OneBusAway, and much less in the way of bus lanes to keep buses out of traffic. Even the downtown bus tunnel was closed at 7 PM weekdays and all day weekends, leaving buses to fend for themselves on 3rd/4th Ave. the rest of the time.

      2. I think the transit tunnel was open until 6pm on Saturdays and closed Sundays. It was really irritating when I wanted to the 194 to the airport on Sundays, and had to find where it’s surface stop was rather than just wandering down to the Convention Center station.

    3. Exclusive-ROW streetcars work great. Mixed-traffic streetcars… well, the only really successful one I can think of is Kansas City. It could have been exclusive-ROW, there’s so little traffic.

  3. 1. Frank, why can’t you ride the Connector from end to end if you want to? Do you really mean you’ll have to transfer in Pioneer Square? What’s the matter with that? Whole purpose of the line is a smooth and easy partly-rolling walk through a miles-long linear neighborhood with hundreds of interesting places to stop. And eat and drink coffee. Isn’t that grand historic underground bathroom still there too?

    2. Shouldn’t a connector include some connection with the South Lake Union line? Tenth floor of the Downtown library has an engineering study showing the Waterfront Streetcar leaving the Waterfront at Broad or Myrtle Edwards Park on the way to South Lake Union. If soil under Mercer Mess will hold a subway- any chance we can have a ca

    3. Speaking of which. The Waterfront Streetcar stopped running in 2005, twelve years ago. 2029 is year short of 2030. Track and one or two stations are still there. And we haven’t had a single hour’s service with a crowded operating Waterfront with no line-haul transportation. Show me proof we won’t get it back. With South Lake Union connection added.

    4. Since streetcars can’t steer around obstacles (in Downtown traffic, buses usually can’t either) when they reach certain capacity, no choice but reserved lanes and signals. Which by then, Chamber and every business along the line will be major supporters.

    5. And since UW Station opened, in addition to ridership stats, trends on that corridor shifted to an accelerating positive. In one operating day, complaints swung a full 180 from wasted money to no seats. Classic “Free Market” forces. Demand and Supply finally got big enough for service that formerly had too little of either to justify.

    Every pic from past streetcar days shows sidewalks full of passengers along every foot of streetcar track. Before digital clocks, watches, and smart-phones, if you could tell time you knew that pendulums swing.

    Mark Dublin

    1. The reason you can’t the ride system end-to-end is because there isn’t a “Connector” line, exactly. The operations plan that SDOT has proposed has two overlapping lines. The “Blue Line” will be the existing First Hill Streetcar track, the new Center City Connector track, and the SLU track as far as Republican, where it will loop back and head south again. The “Red Line” will be the existing SLU track, the new Center City Connector track, and the First Hill Streetcar track as far east as 8th. The shared section in the middle will have 5 minute frequencies while the two tails will be at 10 minutes.

      You can see the details in this PDF if you scroll down a few pages. Strangely this map isn’t readily available on the Center City Connector site.

      1. David, I think my point still holds that very few passengers who are not staging a pro-streetcar protest will ever want a single seat ride on this really great-looking network. Whole idea is sight-seeing, getting off when you see something fun to do, and riding to whatever cool is next.

        But, like a certain other really unsavory connection…put a child on an interurban when he’s six, and you’ll have a Chicago and North Shore passenger for life. His life, not the railroad’s which ended when he was about 13.

        Any hold-up on the Convention Center, and we switch a spur off Westlake at Whole Foods headed straight for the DSTT. Since the little Skoda’s battery couldn’t stay out from under a LINK train at 60, we can couple on another unit at CPS with with all the seats removed for a single motor off a 1938 North Shore mailcar.

        And switch off on an abandoned spur into a brand-new really transit-oriented development for dispaced Ballardians that’d get rail in there before anybody even got a permit for a road.

        But here’s a public-private project with an industry for whom the economy is always lucrative:

        Straight shot north along 10th and up Howe Street to both Lakeview Cemetery – Bruce Lee’s final residence. And also The Grand Army of the Republic cemetery just north, residence of many real Republicans who could still vote in Chicago, where the dead often do.


        Since my former alma mater Lake Washington Technical Institute recently developed a funeral technician program, we could schedule a firm connection with the 540 in Kirkland. UW to Capitol Hill, connect with streetcar upstairs on Broadway.

        Funeral industry funds could really help ST in Olympia. Where nobody will say for sure how long seniority really lasts…


  4. Was crossing Westlake at Mercer when my front tire got stuck in a guess what? Close one, but if I want to live to see a CAndy company pay for a subway station there, will have to throw away my smart phone and admit I can’t ride a bike Look Ma No Hands!


  5. Excellent piece, Frank.

    Somewhere in those early STB posts you will find a comment where I said the streetcar was a nice enough pilot project, but that SDOT needed to extend it and give it ROW quickly or risk poisoning the well against streetcars as expensive toys. Ahem. Of course Lord Jarrett tapping his scepter twice to indicate displeasure didn’t help either.

    They are certainly not the end-all, be-all some advocates imagined back in the 1990s, but there are still appropriate markets for a mode that — designed well — offers some of the benefits of light rail at a fraction of the cost and construction time. They generally have an easier time garnering political support and federal dollars than buses (transit was *not* getting a lane and parking on First for buses), they offer higher capacity (cue a RossB epic) and a better rider experience than buses, and they attract tourists and choice riders. They are highly visible and highly legible, valuable attributes in busy downtown contexts. And while EDCs and boosters surely exaggerate the role of streetcars in spurring growth in places like the Pearl, there is just as surely some non-negligible economic and place-making impact that policymakers should rightfully consider.

    We’ve built some truly crappy streetcar lines in the last 20 years; my money says the CCC and projects like King Street in Toronto end up marking the beginning of a course correction that helps the mode regain some lost luster and achieve some of the potential it has reached elsewhere in the world.

    1. >> transit was *not* getting a lane and parking on First for buses)

      Says who? Much of Madison will be transit only, and only buses will use it. This whole idea that it is easier to get right of way for streetcars is simply not true. Madison BRT will have more right of way, both in distance and in ratio. You can look at the same neighborhood (First Hill) and see that the bus will have its own lane there, but the streetcar won’t. Holy cow, you can look at the place where they cross and see that the train will be stuck in traffic, while the bus runs in its own lane.

      >> they offer higher capacity

      Except ours don’t

      >> and a better rider experience than buses

      Since when? The most important element of transit for most people is that it runs often and fast. Streetcars lag buses in both categories (since they are more often delayed). Put it this way, if a bus arrived a couple minutes before the streetcar and was going to move faster, how many people would wait for the streetcar? Very few.

      >> they attract tourists and choice riders.

      I don’t care about the tourists, and what the heck are “choice riders”. You mean riders that have more money? Right now the streetcar isn’t attracting many riders, but I guess each one is “choice”.

      >> We’ve built some truly crappy streetcar lines in the last 20 years;

      Yep, like Seattle’s.

      >> my money says the CCC and projects like King Street in Toronto

      Wait, you think the CCC and Toronto’s streetcar system are similar? You really are begging for an epic discussion. Never mind, I’ll keep it brief. Density, capacity, existing rail line. Toronto has it, we don’t.

      >> But there are still appropriate markets for a mode that — designed well — offers some of the benefits of light rail at a fraction of the cost and construction time.

      Absolutely. No argument there. The problem is that very few places in North America are actually appropriate for it, and even fewer actually implement it properly.

      The difference between light rail and streetcars are rather arbitrary anyway. We have a “light rail” line that runs on the surface, and thus could be considered a streetcar. We aren’t unique, by any means. A lot of cities have a lot more surface running “light rail”. But they generally call it light rail, because the whole point is to move people. If they call it a streetcar, chances are, they are trying to appeal to tourists, or agencies trying to attract tourists (like the comment from the Vancouver official saying the streetcar “isn’t mass transit”). So, my guess is if you see successful, well designed “streetcars” they will call those light rail.

      1. Ross, Ross, Ross. It’s Friday night, Moore lost, and I’m in a great mood, at least by 2017 standards. Must we dance this same tired dance? Even the barkeep wants to go home. OK, here we go, as quickly as possible.

        “Says who?”

        Again, says anyone with a rudimentary awareness of local politics. Yes, Madison got a lane (although as Frank pointed out below, it was a battle, and after all these years Third still only has partial transit priority). But news flash: Madison is not First Avenue. We were not getting a lane and taking parking on First Avenue for a bus. Period. Full stop. Other streetcar opponents concede this point. I’ve asked you multiple times — now stretching back at least a couple of years — to shoot a simple email to the downtown chamber or any other major business group and ask where they would have stood on clearing both a lane and parking on First Avenue for a bus circulator.


        “Except ours don’t”

        For the umpteenth time: Five-minute headways on dedicated ROW provide a lot of capacity even if our streetcars aren’t the biggest vehicles on the market. But if supply ever proves inadequate to demand somewhere down the line, we can buy bigger vehicles. Not the end of the world.

        “Since when?”

        Since always. Sorry, but the science of the competing propulsion methods just isn’t up for debate. Streetcars offer a smoother and more pleasant ride.

        “I don’t care about the tourists”

        That’s OK. But cities can, do, and should care about them.

        “what the heck are ‘choice riders.'”

        Read a book.

        “Wait, you think the CCC and Toronto’s streetcar system are similar?”

        Of course not. Which is why I never said they were similar. I said the CCC and a recent pilot project on one corridor in Toronto are promising in the amount of transit priority they are granting streetcars. How you extrapolated from that to some sweeping statement comparing the CCC to “Toronto’s streetcar system” is, well, pretty par for the course, unfortunately.


  6. I actually rather like the First Hill Streetcar- I live on East Pike, and I sometimes take it to the ID when I can’t be assed to walk to Capitol Hill Station. Not the best endorsement, but still. I hope the CCC gives a good name to these projects and show that they can work if given a ROW.

    1. We live in the ID “Japantown” section about half way up the hill. Wife takes the FH streetcar from the bottom of the hill because it stops right beside Seattle Central and the Pike/Pine part of Capitol Hill and there’s no stairs/escalator/corridor to deal with. Even though she has to leave a bit earlier. I usually walk up the rest of the hill to catch it at Yesler (she’s too lazy to do this). Both of us take it several times a week down to Yesler from CH because it’s a downhill walk instead of a steep uphill walk from Link. Most people seem to be riding between Pike/Pine and ID or Occidental Square, especially restaurant and bar goers in the evenings. Though taking Link would be faster, sometimes it’s just convenient to not have to walk more than 5 minutes on *both* ends of the trip. I can see the FH route getting more riders as all those new apartments open up on Yesler. We’ll see, though I will (realistically, unfortunately) not be in the neighborhood to see it unfold.

      Here’s my take. From Yesler to Denny it’s OK save for occasionally waiting long at Boren. Which has very little cross street bus service that I can see and not much pedestrian traffic–it’s priority for cars not busses that is slowing the thing down there. The turns from Jackson onto 14th and 14th onto Yesler? Not many busses going through there. And those are the points where you’re like, “er, why aren’t we moving???” Also SDOT hasn’t done much for signal priority on Jackson. Where, incidentally, most of the busses are running ALONGSIDE the streetcar tracks and most of the side street car traffic is making turns onto Jackson. Actually, going through Pike and Pine and Madison, where there are many cross street busses is not nearly as painful in the scheme of things.

      So at least anecdotally I would argue the conflict with bus priority is not the major factor slowing down the FH streetcar. It probably is a factor at Pike/Pine and Broadway and 5th and Jackson, but those are not the worst bottlenecks. The worst bottlenecks are still due to car priority. SDOT: please fix Boren and the turns at 14th Ave!

      1. The fact that we don’t have bus service on Boren is major whole in the network, which could have been fixed with money being spent on the streetcar. It is rediculous for two neighborhoods with density of First Hill and South Lake Union, each a mile from downtown and each other, and connected by a direct road, to not have a bus running between them.

      2. @asdf2 – Exactly. It isn’t that the streetcar *route* doesn’t have merit. Of course it does. You can pretty much lay any line down downtown, run a vehicle often, and pick up riders. But the choice of a streetcar was a poor and unnecessary one. Put it this way — you like it, but would you ride it if it was a bus route, instead? Of course you would. I seriously doubt anyone goes out of there way to catch the streetcar because it is a streetcar. But the choice of a streetcar as a mode meant several, unfortunate things. As mentioned, it cost a bunch of money. It is also extremely inflexible. Since we spent a lot of money on it, there is a need to justify the expensive, which means it runs a lot more often than other, arguably more worthy buses. All of these combine for a bit of a mess. There definitely should be service on Boren (it is a major hole). There is — and likely will be — major restructuring at some point, but the streetcar can’t be part of it. Either it becomes a very expensive, redundant route, or we live with a poor network.

  7. It would be great if Ballard Light rail service could be sped up 5 years by running 2-car light rail on surface temporarily from Seattle Center through Belltown down 1st Ave to intertwine with the CCC tracks while the 2nd light rail tunnel is still being constructed. Once the the 2nd tunnel is complete, the Ballard light rail trains (now 4-car) can switch over to the tunnel, and the now vacated surface track through Belltown can be used by a streetcar route as shown in Oran’s map above.

    1. That’s an excellent idea! It’d also mean the West Seattle line could run directly downtown instead of stubbing out at SODO.

    2. While this would be awesome, it also assumes that the Salmon Bay crossing is politically and physically easier than the downtown tunnel, and I’m not sure that’s the case. Also, Link runs at double the voltage of the Streetcar, but maybe a two car train would allow Link to run at lower voltage?

      1. They’re not as different as you might think.

        TriMet’s MAX cars are “750 DC” but the substations west of Lloyd Center were re-tuned for somewhere closer to 870 v for better performance.

        The static converters on the Skoda streetcars used on Tacoma Link should be capable of anything between 540 and 960. The Link cars will probably run on anything down to about 800.

        You could just insulate things for 1500 and run the substations at a lower voltage until Link trains take over.

        Biggest problem is physical. The streetcars used in Seattle are extra narrow. Link cars are wider, so the platforms would have to be temporarily wider with streetcars.

    3. I’ve pondered that as well. It’s certainly worth considering. If nothing else, when the LQA/SLU subway segment opens, a First Avenue-Elliott Avenue streetcar could then end near Expedia. Certainly, Elliott Street won’t be carrying 99 traffic when the viaduct closes, and that could open up some opportunity.

      It wouldn’t make any sense to run a Ballard light rail train on this track from Seattle Center/LQA because they would be at different elevations and the bored tunnel machine would begin its work just east of Elliott anyway.

      Different voltages would seemingly be solved by building redundant substations and switching substations when the light rail opens, right? That doesn’t appear to be a fatal flaw and is rather an extra cost.

      I think that the question isn’t whether it’s possible. The question is how much it costs and what kinds of benefits would occur. ST3 wasn’t budgeted with enough contingencies to do extra things and is heavily reliant on anticipated Federal support. I could even see a scenario where the second tunnel becomes so costly and complicated to build that this five-year streetcar operation could be a ten-year or twenty-year streetcar operation as an interim condition.

  8. Nice article. Some thoughts:

    the Center City Connector will have exclusive right-of-way … from day one, while 3rd Avenue, …has only partial bus priority.

    The streetcar is not the only place where there will be significant right of way downtown dedicated to transit. If I’m not mistaken, the Madison BRT line will have more right of way, both in total distance as well as percentage of the route that the streetcar.

    But the streetcar line on First will be the biggest north-south section. I think one of the key reasons is because it will run in the middle of the street. Banning left turns (or controlling them) is relatively simple compared to banning right turns and street parking. Which leads to a couple of ideas:

    1) It would be great to run some buses in the center lane on Third. Banning left turns is simple (and a good idea in general). We are buying a fleet of buses with dual dual sided doors, and some will run through downtown. So the only challenge would be building the stops. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is room. Third looks to be four lanes, so I just don’t see it as possible.

    2) Since we can’t add center running buses on Third, we should move some bus routes to First. One possibility is the 7 and 70, assuming they are paired. These are already scheduled to be converted to RapidRide. The city has considered running the 7 in the middle of the street on Jackson (as described here, under Corridor 3 so this would just extend the right of way for that bus. But there are other possibilities. The D would make some sense, since it already cuts over to First in Belltown, then cuts back to Third. By simply running down first, it would avoid a couple of turns. Likewise, the C will be close to the waterfront, and moving up to First seems easier than moving over to Third.

    Moving a few buses to First, to take advantage of the right of way, would not only mean faster (and more reliable) service for those buses through downtown, but better bus service on Third.

    1. Having the 7/70 pairing with center running busses using the streetcar platforms on Jackson makes sense. Especially if that lane is transit only! The current bus stop at 5th and Jackson gets pretty congested.

    2. Madison BRT is a good point. It was able to cobble together the political support for ROW and funds. But even then there was a block-by-block fight for transit priority.

      1. I think it had more to do with geography. Madison is a major corridor that is also unusual. Take the labels off the map, and it is pretty easy to find, since it is the only major diagonal line. There was bound to be some fighting over how much right of way to give to it, because it is so convenient for some drivers.

        First is not that much different that other, similar streets (2nd, 3rd, etc.) and arguably a lot less important. It is also wide. I think most people just didn’t care, really, if you simply take three lanes, since drivers still have the other ones.

        I think it is easy to look at First and say “We got what we wanted, but can’t get much of anything on Third”, but I would say driving on First is easier. If I drive on Third, I better know what time it is, otherwise I can get a ticket. If I drive on First, all I need to know is that I use the car lane (the outside one).

        Eventually cars will be banned from Third all day long. Hopefully they will ban left turns as well. But they can’t have the buses running down the middle of the street because there simply isn’t enough room. Unless, of course, the only vehicles on that street are buses, and there is nowhere in the city (not even First) where that is true.

    3. I really wish Third Avenue could be like Market Street in SF with half the routes running on the inside lanes and half the routes running on the outside lanes, each with separate stops/platforms. Unfortunately I dont think there is enough room, though I’d be willing to even cut down the sidewalks significantly to make it work (so long as they arent less than 8′ wide)

      1. You don’t have enough population or transit to pull a “Market Street”. The problem is, by doing this you lose the benefit of combined line frequency — you can no longer take “the next bus which comes along”, you have to pick which one to wait for.

        This is fine if the routes serving EVERY stop are running at maximum frequency, as they are on Market Street… but you’re nowhere near that.

  9. Great retrospective piece. Thanks Frank.

    While I find the significantly increased capital costs for the CCC as well as the optimistic (i.e., flawed) assumptions in the city’s operational financing both to be troubling, since the city has decided to move forward with the project anyway, I hope the desired outcomes do come to fruition eventually. Additionally, I hope that the city can keep the capital cost variance in check and we see little, if any, additional cost escalation.

    Minor correction category:
    “Streetcar expansion talk went on hold as the recession dragged on.”

    As the recession was over by this point (2011), I think what you meant to say was that the lingering effects of the recession dragged on, or something to that effect.

  10. Seems like a post like this should have some long-term ridership data.

    So I pulled some data myself from the FTA database. Ridership grew steadily from 2008 through 2012. 2012 through 2014 were the glory days of the SLU Streetcar, when daily ridership exceeded 2,000 averaged over the year. Daily ridership peaked in August 2011 at 2,563. Seasonal ridership is spiky like Link, peaking during the summer and diving in the winter. Then in 2015 Metro extended the C line to SLU and improved Route 40 in direct competition with the streetcar. Overall service in the corridor improved, but the streetcar portion of the ridership dropped. After February 2016 First Hill streetcar data is included, so the SLU-specific trend isn’t known.

    Year Annual Boardings Avg. Daily Boardings
    2008 413,937 1,134
    2009 451,204 1,236
    2010 520,932 1,427
    2011 714,461 1,957
    2012 750,888 2,057
    2013 760,933 2,085
    2014 707,714 1,939
    2015 622,225 1,705
    2016 1,358,297 3,721

    1. Reliability is a huge problem with the streetcar even with the transit lanes (thanks Mercer and SOVs in general) and it has a reputation for being slow and late. It is constantly delayed and so there are huge gaps in service, combined with a difficult/different real time arrival system (at least I always have issues knowing when it will arrive). I’m lazy and have an ORCA passport so I will try to take it when I can but seem to always have to wait awhile and so i end up walking it. Then you dont know how long the streetcars will lay over at the terminals. Fix the delays and reliability and make it be predicable and I’m sure the ridership will increase significantly.

      1. The streetcar often appears slower than the buses that parallel it. I’ve taken both the C-line and the streetcar from Westlake/Denny to Fred Hutch at least a couple of times, and the C-line bus seems to be consistently faster.

        Moving the other direction towards downtown, the streetcar is just barely faster than walking, even with dedicated lanes, in large parts due to the lights that tend to stay red for excessive amounts of time. When you’re walking, it is often possible to go through multiple red light due to no cars coming. But the streetcar has to sit and wait, obeying every light to the letter.


    Probably most important thing about streetcars is never seen in the United States because no city’s traffic laws- or insurance companies- allow it. Especially in plaza-type spaces, like on the waterfront in Oslo, people on foot or bicycle and also streetcar drivers are very comfortable at close range with each other.

    Huge difference from buses: outer edge of the car never moves side to side. Whatever tape measure says on this one, close presence of a moving bus doesn’t seem as precise. Stone paving can alsoi be raised a few inches exactly following the trackway, so side of your shoe tells you when you’re getting too close.

    Through a streetcar windshield in the middle of Downtown Gothenburg, saw a woman pushing a baby carriage toward the tracks at a pretty good clip. Driver didn’t even come back on the throttle, And bell didn’t make her even look up. She just slacked her pace half a click as the car rolled by.

    A hundred years ago, sound would’ve been hooves. Ten thousand, hooves followed by sled-runners on snow or mud. Average citizen of Gothenburg or Oslo has spent hours every day aware of being a foot from moving streetcars since before they’re born. Literally. Evidence now confirms same for Mozart and human voices.

    For next ten thousand years- okay, ten- we’ll do just fine with curbs, large stones, barberry hedges, and signs with streetcar tracks running over a skull and crossbones, But those expensive outdoor cafes from Union south will only gain patronage, and property value, the closer the white table cloths are to track center. Buses….sorry.


    1. This is a great point about the placemaking ability of a streetcar. In an ideal future, stretches of our streetcar ROW will look more like parks than streets.

    1. Yes, it’s been invaluable since nothing else is going down 1st except the 125 which makes one stop.

  12. I appreciate the article, and all of the work that transit advocates, planners, engineers, politicians, and construction workers have done to make this a reality. Thanks, all. I can’t believe it has been a decade!

  13. I dont think there is necessarily a problem with streetcars, rather its how we build streetcars… and that is in mixed traffic on congested one-way arterials in the curb lane in weird one-way loops that go out of direction and crisscross over themselves requiring special signals for crossing from one side of the street across multiple lanes to make a turn. They are so over-engineered and overly complex and yet are terribly designed.

    Kansas City is one of the better ones of the new ones, it has the problem of running in mixed traffic in the curb lane, but has a simple straight shot route from downtown to sort of a midtown with lots of destinations (for KC). It is legible in people’s minds and doesn’t jog all over the place around downtown. Tucson seems relatively good too for a newer system.

    Obviously Toronto is the gold standard as is the F-line in SF. They should be emulated.

  14. Seems like the portrayal of the early streetcar critics as ‘party poopers’ was mis-founded. 3,700 daily riders is not a ‘stop the presses’ moment in any transit world, especially given the startup and daily operating costs. I suppose if you attribute SLU growth to the streetcar, then you can tell me to stuff it, but I suspect it’s more complicated than that.

    1. Route 40 and 62 do all the heavy lifting in that corridor with Route 8 providing the crosstown crawl. I’ve accidentally happened on the streetcar by chance during rush hour and there is always a seat if you wish and often I’m one of three passengers. His vanity project would have impressed me if he’d made it work with existing service and needs. It has two uses: directly connecting a rider with LINK in the south and Fred Hutch in the north. Otherwise, it is useless. This coming from the most passionate transit advocate any of my friends and coworkers have ever known.

  15. The passage discussing the transportation benefit district measure that failed in 2011 could use some correction. The TBD is governed only by the nine councilmembers; the mayor has voice only. The measure did include funds for streetcar planning and that was used by its opponents.

  16. Except it was not a sleepy warehouse district named South Lake Union. It was a sleepy residential and warehouse district, much like Georgetown, named the Cascade District that Paul Allen/Vulcan arrogantly thought he could rename. Prior to the referring to South Lake Union meant the south end of the lake, in the water or right on the shore.

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