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A streetcar cure for Seattle’s waterfront

South Lake Union is developing rapidly. Credit: Transit Nerds

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.

“We need to find the streetcars] a new home,” a Metro blog says, acknowledging the public discussion of the waterfront route's fate. (Options are along the waterfront or a new line along First Avenue. Both have problems: there's not a lot of room left for more lanes along the waterfront, while First Avenue is very narrow for accommodating streetcar tracks.)

Apparently, Metro thinks a heritage streetcar won't do for Seattle's new front yard: “In the coming years,” the blog continues, “city leaders will be making decisions on whether they want a modern [emphasis added] streetcar to serve the waterfront.” “Metro is committed to exhausting all local options,” the statement concludes, “and will not forward legislation to the King County Council [which oversees Metro] 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,” Arkills told Crosscut , although Metro did entertain the St. Louis representative's visit. Asked how Metro would react if the St. Louis people offered $1 million tomorrow for all five cars, Arkills chose his words carefully. “At this point we would probably tell them that we have to play out the process locally. Our preference would be to find someone in the area, preferably someone who would allow them to continue to be enjoyed by the public in the region.”

The Metro blog's allusion to a modern streetcar comports with our region's predilection for expensive solutions to all manner of transportation needs. At the July 12 forum where CWC rolled out the waterfront vision, attendees were invited to express their preferences for waterfront transportation alternatives by “voting” for pictured options — including a modern streetcar, but not a George Benson car.

After the Benson cars were mothballed in 2005, the city and its partners built the South Lake Union line for $43 million a mile. That included sleek, European-designed modern cars which cost between $3 and $4 million each and traverse the 1.3-mile route at an overall speed not exceeding eight miles an hour. More recently, the city has commenced construction of the First Hill streetcar route, using modern cars with comparable costs. The cars will take 16 to 19 minutes to cover a circuitous 2.4-mile route.

Bemoaning Seattle's fixation on all things trendy,Eric Scigliano, in a recent Crosscut piece, rightly asked, “Is public transit all about getting there quickly and conveniently, or about having fun and looking cool?”

The Benson streetcar promises both utility and pleasure, combining its own kind of cool with connectivity. An antique vehicle taking the city's visitors to and from a splendid waterfront could also bind together places very important to the city's everyday life. A blue-ribbon committee cited (but not further identified) in Danny Westneat's recent Seattle Times column on the Benson streetcar proposed restoring the service from the sculpture park to the Starbucks corporate headquarters just south of Safeco and the site proposed for basketball arena, rather than to the International District.

On its way to Starbucks, the streetcar could call at the cruise ship terminal, the ferry terminal, and two or three huge sports venues. With a connection with the First Hill streetcar on Jackson, the alignment would improve connectivity with Sound Transit and the hospital district. The connection to King Street Station, and to any intermodal facility that might be built there, is not without trade-offs, but its potential benefits are huge. On a map of Seattle, the route is literally a matter of connecting the dots. The vehicles? Mahogany and ash woodwork adorning a classic, angular profile that will bring the nostalgia buffs running. And the cars, Arkills says, are in excellent condition. What's not to like about the idea?

“I can't support anything at this point,” Walker of the CWC said. “There are a lot of options. Transit is not the only thing going on there." She observed further that "none of this [transit solution for the waterfront] is going to go until 2018. This is six or seven years out. There's time to think about this thing, and work it through.”

Kevin Daniels, whose North Lot Development LLC is building a major retail-residential complex between King Street Station and Occidental Avenue, is among those favoring the north-south transit line. “Right now I am advocating a line that goes from King Street Station or 1st & Jackson down First Ave to Lander and then over to the E3 bus lane with stops at the stadia and at Starbucks Center," Daniels said in an email. "Extending that particular line to Colman Dock would make sense to me for the inter-connectivity. Carrying it further along to the cruise ship terminal would be a positive for Pioneer Square for sure, but I have been told the ridership isn't strong enough to justify the investment and the property owners along the path don't have the resources for the required LID [local investment district tax].”

Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Joy Goldenberg reported that “through our on-going coordination with the Waterfront project, we are aware that the City is interested in pursuing a streetcar connection to Colman dock. We anticipate that transit-focused coordination will pick-up in the fall.”

The compartmentalization of thinking in modern governments makes the creation of effective transportation linkages an easy task to avoid. Still, Seattle is thinking big and comprehensively about its central waterfront. In this context, the Benson streetcar's connectivity and tourist appeal could become a component at relatively little cost. The cars and some of the station platforms and track are still there.

George Benson's vision is still there, too. “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.”

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