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A streetcar cure for Seattle's waterfront

George Benson's handsome old streetcars languish in a warehouse. They belong in the planning for a revived waterfront. Better yet, extend the line to the stadiums and SoDo.
The waterfront streetcar, back when it was part of our streetscape.

The waterfront streetcar, back when it was part of our streetscape. Flickr

Most U.S. cities grew organically, with scant attention to the centralization of transportation. Seattle, no exception, possesses three disparate transportation hubs, officially designated as such by the city government.

One is Westlake Square, served by buses, the South Lake Union streetcar, the monorail. and the Central Link light rail. A second is Colman Dock, served by Washington State Ferries, several passenger-only ferries, and buses. Nearby is King Street Station, served by buses, intercity rail, the bus tunnel, Sound Transit, and commuter rail. These hubs can be visualized as the gates to the city's center.

For users and for transit planners, the challenge lies in the gaps between the hubs. One big gap is the one along the downtown waterfront.

The removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in favor of the Route 99 tunnel, coupled with the rehabbing of Colman Dock and the projected creation of a tree-lined pedestrian promenade along the shoreline, “opens an incredible and unique opportunity”  in the words of the “Strategic Plan for Realizing the Waterfront Seattle Vision” recently released by the Central Waterfront Committee (CWC). A panel of citizens, CWC oversaw the concept plan's completion by the landscape architectural firm, James Corner Field Operations.

More than creating a new waterfront park and promenade is at stake, for the opportunity includes the possibility of better transportation linkages — including those between Colman Dock and King Street Station. But CWC's strategic plan makes no reference to transit in its artist's conceptions of the space, and the text scarcely mentions transit beyond an admonition to “hold ground on the street design” and a recommendation that “no civic space should be taken for transportation uses.”

The transportation opportunity is the George Benson waterfront streetcar, named for the Seattle city councilman whose energies led to the 1982 launch of the heritage-streetcar line, which lasted until 2005. The service ran the length of the central waterfront, and veered up S. Main Street, reaching a southern terminus at the edge of the International District. Benson's vision got tossed under the wheels of civic progress in 2005, a year after his death, when the cars' maintenance barn at the 1.6-mile route's north end was razed when it came into conflict with the creation of the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park and no other location for the barn could be found. Since then, the streetcars have been gathering dust at a Metro warehouse near Safeco Field, leaving a hole in Seattle's transit network.

While heritage streetcars may carry the image of a tourist attraction, it would be wrong to see the Benson streetcar as a money-sucking sop for the occasional Amtrak traveler seeking a cutesy way to get to Colman Dock. The most nearly profitable streetcar system in the country, San Francisco's historic cable cars, recovers far more of their expense from the farebox (nearly 45 percent) than does the same city's bus system. The cars attract hordes of tourists, as do New Orleans' streetcars, which likewise easily beat the city's buses in terms of farebox recovery. With little in the way of tourist appeal, the South Lake Union streetcar recovers only 12.6 percent of its costs, versus the 26.3 percent recovered by Metro buses.

“My understanding is that the Benson streetcar had the best farebox recovery of all vehicles in the Metro system,” said Lloyd Flem, long-time executive director of All Aboard Washington, the state's passenger-rail advocacy organization. Metro did not have ready access to data to confirm or refute Flem's statement.

According to Tom Gibbs, who was the first head of Metro's transit division and is leading the campaign to reinstate the Benson route, the vintage cars in their last year of operation attracted more than half a million riders, roughly comparable to the South Lake Union ridership.

The Benson streetcar “was an incredible success both as a mode of transportation and as a tourism development tool,” Flem said.

Asked why the strategic plan makes no mention of streetcars, Maggie Walker, CWC co-chair, told Crosscut that “that's never been our purview. . . . We are charged with a vision for the waterfront for the citizens of the city of Seattle. We're not focused on the granularity of the projects.” Asked if the committee would be weighing in on transportation in the future, Walker said, “Not to my knowledge." She added, "Lots of other folks have been working on it. I understand people's frustrations on that.” She noted that "the current conceptual plan doesn't preclude any options."

The streetcars that are currently languishing at their Sodo purgatory are up for sale — sort of. Chris Arkills, transportation adviser to King County Executive Dow Constantine, places their market value at $150-200,000, or roughly 5 percent of what a new, modern  streetcar costs. Metro reports that St. Louis's Loop Trolley Company, whose representative visited the warehouse in June, is interested in purchasing one or more of the 1920s-vintage vehicles. The company has yet to tender an official offer, however.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 7:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, and why stop the streetcars at the Sculpture garden to the North, and the ID to the South? According to planning documents, the Battery Street tunnel is to be "decommissioned". Apparently it's no longer any good for automotive traffic, although it's difficult for a layman to understand why, since it has served the city well for fifty years. The Benson streetcars could easily be extended Northward through the tunnel, providing valuable pedestrian stops at the Pike Place Market and near the Seattle Center. Similarly, a Southward extension would provide easy access to both (or all three) stadiums.

gabowker

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 3:23 p.m. Inappropriate

"BRING THE HERITAGE STREETCARS BACK TO SEATTLE WATERFRONT"

George Benson's antique streetcars languish in a warehouse but belong in the planning for a revived waterfront extended to Sodo Stadiums.

Most U.S. cities grew organically with scant attention to centralization of transportation. Seattle, no exception, has three disparate transportation hubs. One is Westlake Square, served by buses, the SLU Streetcar, monorail and Central Link LRT. A second is Colman Dock, served by State Ferries, passenger-only ferries and buses. Nearby is King Street Station, served by Amtrak, Sounder intercity rail, Link LRT and buses. These hubs are visualized as the gates to the city center. For transit users and planners, a major challenge lies in the gaps between the hubs.

One gap is along the waterfront. Removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct for the Route 99 bored tunnel (debacle) coupled with Colman Dock rehab and creation of a tree-lined promenade “opens an incredible, unique opportunity” in the words of the 'Strategic Plan for -realizing- the Waterfront Seattle Vision' released by the CWC Central Waterfront Committee panel of citizens overseeing the concept planning from landscape architectural firm James Corner Field Operations.

More than creating a new waterfront park and promenade is at stake. This opportunity includes a necessity for better transportation linkage between Colman Dock and King Street Station. However, the CWC strategic plan makes no reference to transit in artist renderings and in text barely mentions transit beyond an admonition to “hold ground on street design” and a recommendation that “no civic space be taken for transportation uses.”

One transportation opportunity is the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar, named for the City Councilman who led the 1982 launch of the streetcar line that ran til 2005 providing service the length of the waterfront and up Main Street to its southern terminus at the International District. The vehicles in mahogany and ash woodwork adorn a classic angular profile that brings nostalgia buffs running. The cars are in excellent condition. What's not to like about the idea?

Benson's vision was tossed under the wheels of progress in 2005, a year after his death, when the maintenance barn at the north end was razed for Olympic Sculpture Park and no other site for the barn was found. Since then, the streetcars have gathered dust at a Metro warehouse near Safeco Field, emerald gems in the Seattle transit network neglected.

After the Benson cars were mothballed, the city built the South Lake Union Streetcar Line using modern cars that average 8 mph along the 1.3-mile route. More recently the city began construction of the First Hill Streetcar again using modern cars to run 2.4-mile route. With little in the way of tourist appeal, the SLU Streetcar recovers only 12.5% vs 26% cost recovery of Metro buses.

While heritage streetcars carry the image of a tourist attraction, it’s inaccurate to view the Benson streetcars as a cutesy ride for occasional Amtrak travelers to the Waterfront. The most profitable streetcar system in the country, San Francisco cable cars, recover more of their operating expense from the farebox (45%) than the city bus system. Cable cars attract hordes of tourists, as do New Orleans streetcars which likewise beat city buses in farebox recovery.

According to Tom Gibbs, the first head of Metro transit division and leading the campaign to reinstate the Benson Streetcars in their last year of operation they served a half a million riders, comparable to the South Lake Union Streetcar ridership. "The Benson streetcar was an incredible success both as a mode of transportation and as a tourism development tool with the best farebox recovery of all vehicles in the Metro system,” said Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington, the state passenger-rail advocacy organization.

Asked why the strategic plan makes no mention of streetcars, Maggie Walker, CWC co-chair, told Crosscut “That's never been our 'purview'. We are charged with a vision for the waterfront for citizens of the city of Seattle. We're not focused on the granularity of the projects.” Asked if the committee would weigh in on transportation in the future, Walker said, “Not to my knowledge," adding, "Lots of other folk have been working on it. I understand people's frustrations on that,” noting "the current conceptual plan doesn't preclude any options."

The streetcars currently languishing at their Sodo purgatory are up for sale, sort of. Chris Arkills, transportation adviser to King County Exec Constantine, places their market value at $150-200K or roughly 5% the cost of new, modern streetcar. Metro reports St. Louis Loop Trolley Company - whose representative visited in June - is interested in purchasing one or more vintage streetcars, but has yet to tender an official offer. “We need to find the streetcars a new home,” a Metro blogger says, acknowledging public interest in the Waterfront Streetcar fate. Route options are the waterfront, supposedly not enough space for rail lines, or 1st Ave, too narrow for tracks, raised platforms and ramps.

Apparently, Metro thinks a heritage streetcar won't do for Seattle's new front porch. “In the coming years, city leaders will be making decisions on whether they want a modern streetcar to serve the waterfront.” This statement concludes, “Metro is committed to exhausting all local options and will not forward legislation to the King County Council to sell the streetcars unless and until we have a viable local operator or are absolutely sure that none exists. We are not actively marketing them in any way.”

Asked how Metro would react if the St. Louis people offered $1 million tomorrow for all 5 cars, Arkills chose his words carefully. “At this point we would probably tell them we have to play out the process locally. Our preference would be to find someone in the area who would allow them to continue to be enjoyed by the public in the region.”

The Metro blog allusion to a modern streetcar suits this city’s predilection for expensive solutions to all manner of needs. At the July 12th forum, CWC rolled out a waterfront vision and attendees were invited to express preference by voting for pictured options: modern streetcar, not antique.

Bemoaning Seattle's fixation on all things trendy, Eric Scigliano in a recent Crosscut piece, rightly asked “Is public transit about getting there quickly, conveniently or having fun and looking cool?” The Benson streetcar promises both - utility and pleasure - its own kind of cool with connectivity. An antique car taking city visitors to a splendid waterfront could bind together places important to everyday life. The Benson Waterfront Streetcar restored service is from Sculpture Park to Starbucks headquarters south of Safeco Field & the International District, or north to Magnolia, Interbay and up to Queen Anne.

An initial Waterfront Streetcar Line from Sculpture Park would stop at the cruise ship terminal, Pike Place Market, Coleman Dock, sports arenas ideally via Railway Ave. With a connection to the First Hill Streetcar at Jackson, this alignment connects the hospital district.

“I can't support anything at this point,” CWC Co-chair Maggie Walker said. “There are a lot of options. Transit is not the only thing going on there. None of this is going to go until 2018, six or seven years out. There's time to think about this and work it through.”

Kevin Daniels of North Lot LLC now building a retail-residential complex at King Street and Occidental, favors the Waterfront Streetcar line. “Right now I advocate a line from King Street Station or 1st & Jackson to Lander and then over to the E3 bus lane with stops at the stadiums and Starbucks Center. Extending that line to Colman Dock makes sense for inter-connectivity. Further on to the cruise ship terminal would be a positive for Pioneer Square, but I’ve been told ridership isn't strong enough to justify the investment, and property owners along the path don't have the resources for an LID [Local Investment District] tax.”

Washington State Ferry spokeswoman Joy Goldenberg says, “Through our on-going coordination with the Waterfront project, we are aware that the City is interested in pursuing a streetcar connection to Coleman Dock. We anticipate that transit-focused coordination will pick-up in the fall.”

Compartmentalization of thought in modern government makes creation of effective transportation linkage an easy task to avoid. Seattle 'seems' to be thinking comprehensively about its central waterfront. In this context the Benson streetcar connectivity and tourist appeal could become a major component at relatively little cost. “My primary interest is in seeing the legacy that George Benson left us reactivated,” Gibbs said. “George Benson worked hard to put that together and it was extremely popular to both residents and tourists. And it's an absolute shame that it isn't still running.”

Wells

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm an editer. Sorry about that.
Reread in this version before passing judgment.
I don't trust people who use words like
"granularity" and "aspirational".

Wells

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 7:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent ideas. It's an embarrassing insult to George Benson and the original Metro that these unique, functional vehicles have been sidelined for so long. I'm appalled that they might be up for sale. Shame on Metro/King County/Seattle leadership.

Garbl

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

There is little support from the city because this trolley would move people rather than get people to move into high density dwellings. Every "transportation" project over the last decade has been about altering real estate values in order to encourage multi story mixed use buildings. Using the special tax districts, developers can scoop up properties from current owners who may not be able to meet the increased taxes, fold the tax increases into the financing, and pass the increased costs on to the final buyers. As the waterfront trolly cant support that type of taxation (since that area is mostly already under the special district for the tunnel) and there is little room for developers to exploit, there is no desire to make a line that would actually benefit the goal of moving people from one point to another.

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

"The Metro blog's allusion to a modern streetcar comports with our region's predilection for expensive solutions to all manner of transportation needs."

"There is little support from the city because this trolley would move people rather than get people to move into high density dwellings"

You hit the nail on the head!

afreeman

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 10:43 a.m. Inappropriate

My family loved the streetcars when they were in service, and miss them still now that they are gone. Absolutely, bring them back! And if the run could be extended at the south end to link up to the new Capitol Hill streetcar line, so much the better!

sandik

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 11:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Editor's note: The following comment was sent from Ray Gastil, the former planning director for Seattle and Manhattan.

The waterfront trolley deserves a more serious review, and it is great that this article was written to help spur that. My recollection was that Seattle city government felt that the waterfront trolley was effectively the wrong message about trolleys -- that it sent the message that they were for tourism and not for a contemporary urban system, and it was important that the latter message be conveyed. I sympathize with that positiion, and also feel that if and when a First Avenue trolley could be built, it is important, and it would in some ways make the waterfront trolley redundant.

But if you are serious about moving people up and down the waterfrtont, Seattle's waterfront is long, and there's not that much to do, and in inclement weather it is long and cold. We need some way to move people, and we need some way to connect Pioneer Square to the great stuff at the other end. Its greatest problem is that a streetcar line will interfere witht the flexibility of the newly opened waterfront. Yet done right, it could help give it a plausible idenity. So...time for a serious rehearing.

And if there are no other good options for moving people on the waterfront besides pedicabs, welll...

Ray Gastil

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 1:22 p.m. Inappropriate

At the north end it could pass the Sculpture Park abomination and continue with stops at Amgen and Pier 91 and Smith Cove Park. I'll be there is room for a car barn somewhere on Port property by Pier 91.

DTNelson

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

the most important attribute of good transit service is frequency and short wait times. the extension concepts would require addional cars to maintain headway. two key requirements for these desires: right of way and funding.

eddiew

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 4:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Ray Gastil is right. Providing that anyone was ever being serious...tearing down the viaduct will indeed be the biggest, dumbest idea of the century.

Back to the drawing board boys...we'll never be Paris at this rate.

jmrolls

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 10:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Rolls, it's worse. Every aspect of this SR99 AWV Replacement Project is corrupt; dangerous GIANT TUBE in gel soils beneath vulnerable buildings; traffic redirection at north portal forecast increased accident rate. Money Hole Syndrome detected.

Wells

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 8:57 p.m. Inappropriate

This common sense idea makes too much sense. Can we appoint a Blue Ribbon Committee?

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 11:23 p.m. Inappropriate

"We're not focused on the granularity of the projects."

What does this even mean? All I see when I read a comment such as that is that there is absolutely zero common sense in those who hold jobs that taxpayers pay for. Ye gods.

Posted Mon, Aug 6, 11:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Even if the CWC panel of citizens are volunteers, they need to have common sense.

Ye gods times 72, the new rule of 72.

Posted Tue, Aug 7, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

The Benson trolley always served more than tourists. Employees at the Port of Seattle used to catch it to King Street Station to connect with the Sounder Train. If the trolley were running now, it could also connect the waterfront with light rail to the airport.
Those who have written about the possibility of extending it north or south are right. I once proposed extending it to Amgen passing through Myrtle Edwards and (then) Elliott Bay Park and/or by acquiring use of some of the BNSF right of way just east of those parks. I walked that route again this morning. It is still doable. With the new overpass over the tracks at Thomas Street, riders could also connect to Uptown/Lower Queen Anne. And, the trolley could extend to the cruise terminal and employment center at Pier 91 and all the way to Fisherman's Terminal, thus linking all those poorly served waterfront destinations. And, all for remarkably little cost per mile.
I regularly visit New Orleans, where their vintage trolleys are a great meeting place for locals and tourists, each train creating its own sense of community for the length of the ride. With our long, windswept waterfront, having a similar trolley connecting people and places all year would be the best thing that could happen to our new waterfront park.
The basic planning had been done by 2005. It is just sitting on the shelf. We need another George Benson--visionary, tenacious,and single-minded about his much-beloved trolley.

Posted Tue, Aug 7, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

I rode the trolley to work many times a week when I worked downtown. Well, actually mostly rode it from work since it was perfectly timed to be pulling away from the Colman dock stop just as Bremerton passengers were hitting the sidewalk. But it was no tourist trap for me, it was a valuable component of my commute. In fact, except for the privately owned monorail and one foray into the bus tunnel a decade ago, the trolley was the only component of Seattle's transit system I've ever ridden. Just because Seattle's central-planning idiots look at the trolley as an amusement part ride, doesn't make it so.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Aug 9, 10:36 a.m. Inappropriate

An admonition to “hold ground on street design” and a recommendation that “no civic space be taken for transportation uses,” was most telling.

FYI, the 'approved' Alaskan Way boulevard design WILL result in bumper-to-bumper traffic the entire length of the central waterfront between Pike & King Streets. Huh? What? Furthermore, side-street traffic from Western Ave entering Alaskan Way will likewise be dangerously hampered with mass pedestrian crossings and other turning traffic. This concern the 'deciders' have determined will not be duly considered and discoursed upon because it is a bold challenge to their unimpeachable authority on how to NOT make Seattle streets worse, already a nightmare BECAUSE its DOTs are staffed by progressively drunken diploma-holders and their policy determined by automobile-oriented businessmen who pollute for a profit and therefore oppose progress.

Wells

Posted Sun, Aug 12, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this article. The restoration of waterfront service, using these historic streetcars, should not be dismissed. Did anyone have any doubt, when Mayor Nickels and other public officials declared that they were being taken out of service "temporarily," because the sculpture garden had precedence, that there was no real intention to reinstate the service or use the cars?

Many of us have been critical over several years regarding transportation-system decisions which have been driven by interests of private developers and special interests rather than by rational cost-benefit considerations relating to available transit options. Reinstatement of waterfront trolley service also would address the absence now of regular First Avenue bus service, between Pioneer Square and Broad, except for the waterfront buses which infrequently make their return trips up First Avenue. The tracks and station shelters remain, unused.

The matter should be taken seriously and voters/taxpayers not patronized once more, with eventual sale of the cars to St. Louis or elsewhere after citizen interest has subsided.

Posted Tue, Aug 14, 8:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for this article.
I agree with most everyone above. Eric Scigliano is correct in pointing out the streetcars are a "utility and pleasure" and deserve consideration.

Although, paddystclair points out the waterfront trolly cant support a developer positive taxation because there is a lack of development or density being served by the waterfront - I feel like I am missing something. Is there not talk of increasing the living density north of century link field? How about increased residential density in pioneer square or the interbay areas? Seems like this is only a matter of making numbers work for the right interest group.

What is not an assumption is that the rails, stops and right of ways are in place - the only thing missing is a storage barn. Granted there is bound to be disruption when waterfront tunneling begins but could this line not be a exist and be a means of getting through that area without the use of a car? Also, this line could be up and running years before the street car that will meander from the ID to Pill Hill will even begin test runs.

Doesn't it make sense to have people transported from the ID to P. Square, the water front (ferry and cruise ships), the steps of the market and finally the sculpture park/elliot bay park.
It would probably be too much for sound transit, metro, the seattle subway group or what have you support an extension north past interbay area and stop at fishman's terminal. That would make too much sense I suppose.

It's a shame this line will probably end up like the trolleys that ran throughout Seattle before them.

uncletim

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