Streetcar boosters, your slip is showing

McGinnville slathers over a Central Connector, just as Metro gets set to launch RapidRide bus routes downtown - with one distinctly un-rapid flaw.
The South Lake Union Trolley: expansion of streetcars is under consideration in Seattle.

The South Lake Union Trolley: expansion of streetcars is under consideration in Seattle. Steve Morgan/Wikimedia Commons

Rapid Ride will soon offer new service in Ballard, Downtown Seattle, and West Seattle. This new shelter was installed across from Ballard High School on Sept. 6.

Rapid Ride will soon offer new service in Ballard, Downtown Seattle, and West Seattle. This new shelter was installed across from Ballard High School on Sept. 6. Joe Copeland

Mayor McGinn’s fertile p.r. operation slipped a couple eyebrow-raising lines into a release today about the planned City Center Connector, a “high-performance high-capacity transit corridor” through downtown. First it quoted McGinn on the selection of a team to design the project (including usual suspects Nelson/Nygard, URS, and CH2MHill). Hizzoner saluted “their combined planning and design engineering experience from past successes like the Seattle Transit Master Plan and both the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars.” (Emphasis added.)

The famously “successful” First Hill Streetcar won’t start running till 2014; right now just it’s just a stretch of torn-up, blocked-off roadway. If it’s already a success, then let’s give thanks that President Obama brought unemployment down to 6 percent in his second term, Dick Cheney and Joseph Kony were finally brought to justice, and the Arctic ice cap stopped melting.

The new streetcar line will no doubt look at least as cute as its SLU predecessor, but it’s also at least as questionable from a transit view. As previously noted, steel-wheeled streetcars, unlike rubber-tired trolleybuses, can’t handle Yesler Way, the more direct route up Pill Hill. So they’ll have to dog-leg around for four-plus extra blocks — up Jackson to 14th Avenue, thence north to Yesler and then back to Broadway, adding millions to the coast, wasted minutes to the route, and a to-be-determined quotient of congestion to the Jackson Street scrum at rush hour. The engineers assure us they’ll be able to sort out the tangle of existing trolley and new streetcar wires there,

But Seattle is not the city to let such petty practicalities derail its grand vision: to knit up the streets with new rails, replacing those it tore up 60 years ago. This vision peaks through a bit later in McGinn’s news release, which notes that “the planning work for the City Center Connector is funded by a $900,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration to study high capacity transit options, such as a rapid streetcar, through the heart of downtown Seattle, which would connect the existing South Lake Union Streetcar with the First Hill Streetcar.” (Again, emphasis added.) Later it pays lips service, as such processes always do, to the pretense that the field is level, all options are open, and planners are just trying to find “the best transit technology” to do the job. Which somehow always turns out to be the technology favored by the political leaders who initiate the process — trophy rail.

But while Sound Transit and the city grind ahead with their big-buck-for-the-bang rail projects, King County Metro is developing RapidRide bus lines that give riders an inkling of how fast, convenient, and comfortable transit can be without laying tracks. RapidRide may not be genuine, Curitíba-worthy bus rapid transit; Seattle Transit Bloggers lament loudly and often the many ways it’s not. But it’s a hit on the two routes where it’s now running, from Bellevue to Redmond and Tukwila to Federal Way. There, according to Metro Transit director Kevin Desmond, ridership has risen, respectively, 15 percent after one year and 50 percent after three.

RapidRide is set to make its downtown debut on Sept. 29, when lines to West Seattle and Ballard will start up. But these lines will be additionally compromised along their critical downtown stretches by a distinctly un-rapid glitch: Those stations won’t have the Orca card readers that let riders swipe-to-pay without lining up at the front of the bus and delaying departure (nor the arrival-time readers that will be mounted on the same electronic pylons). The reason: Cash-strapped Metro is waiting for the city to lay the fiber-optic cable needed to power them. At the same time the county will eliminate the downtown Ride Free Area, compounding the delays.

The pylons and ORCA readers should be in place next year, and card- and ticket-vending machines may eventually join them. But in the meantime expect the familiar pileups at the farebox, confirming all the worst stereotypes about sclerotic bus transit. The prospect of streetcars will shine unfairly by comparison. The city seems to have no trouble providing ticket machines and card swipers for their launches.

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 5:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Now that's clear and lively writing. Crosscut writers take note. And it fits on one page.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 10:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Why do the Orca card readers for rapid ride need to be hooked up to a fiber-optic line? The ones on regular busses aren't connected to anything. Even if they had to be online, couldn't they use a cellular internet connection, or even just a phone line like a credit card reader?

I highly doubt an Orca Card reader is streaming HD video while torrenting Photoshop and running a Web server. There's no reason it needs fiber.

Jon Sayer

Posted Thu, Sep 6, 11:02 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm often a critic of modally biased studies, but if you have two streetcars either real or close to real at opposite ends of downtown, neither reaching most downtown destinations, it makes sense to look at connecting them, don't you think? Then each line would actually connect to the whole of downtown without a transfer. If you pick First Ave., you also can connect two major transportation terminals (Union Station and the Ferry Terminal) with remote downtown destinations and connect all the major attractions along the major tourist circulation route. Given decisions that have already been made, only a continuous streetcar would provide those benefits - so why would you think of studying other modes? Once facts are on the ground, then other options are no longer really on the table.

I hope the study also considers whether the vehicles and maintenance facilities can be planned to operate both lines as a single corridor. I'm not sure that's how the planning has been done to date.

I think every transit mode has its best uses, and streetcars can be very useful for downtown circulation. When we start looking at urban transit corridors to Ballard and West Seattle though, failing to look at other (more rapid) modes would make me *mad*.

Posted Fri, Sep 7, 12:32 a.m. Inappropriate

The study funds have opportunity cost; they could be spent on real projects. Elsewhere, SDOT is doing great work: bus bulbs on 3rd Avenue in Belltown, improving the flow of routes 7 and 44, adding real time arrival information on 3rd Avenue. Is there really any fiscal prospect of connecting the two short slow one-car streetcars, even separate from whether it is a good idea?

The short slow one-car streetcars are NOT high capacity transit. That is found in the DSTT. Link will be great. The rapid streetcar discussed in the transit master plan approach HCT, but they have not been subject to an alternatives analysis and the downtown connector is not one.

Fellows asks some questions. Here are some reasons why connecting the two streetcars may not make sense. (I hope NN has enough to consider a negative answer). The two are somewhat incompatible; the FH line cars will have batteries to avoid significant conflict with the electric trolleybus infrastructure. the SLU cars will not be able to run on the FH line. If they are connected, SDOT may sell the SLU cars to buy new more costly battery-equipped cars to run on the combined line. The north-south avenues have a tremendous amount of frequent service already. in 2016, ST Link will connect Broadway and International District station very fast frequent and reliable service. ST has three frequent bus routes on 4th and 5th avenues; they will not go away before 2023. Metro has frequent north-south service on 3rd Avenue and in the tunnel. In 2016, after the Columbia and Seneca ramps close, 1st Avenue may work better for transit; it could served by electric trolleybus service without the capital cost of new infrastructure; the capital needed for streetcar track, catenary, and cars has opportunity cost. Seattle does not have the funds. Is downtown circulation our greatest current need? I doubt it. downtown is where we have the most service frequency and the tunnel. the surface streetcar would probably slow all modes down more.

Transfers are not bad if they between frequent and reliable services. few riders will want to use a slow loopy linked streetcar whose trips would be better served with a combination of Link and bus. Do riders really make circular trips? Or is a frequent grid of service a better answer?

eddiew

Posted Fri, Sep 7, 3:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Excellent article. Great catch about the "successful" First Hill rail project. All summer I've been watching crews tear up Broadway and install tracks in the street in front of Seattle Central Community College, spending millions of dollars to accomplish what? Steel rather than rubber wheels; a few streetcars where we could have had many buses for the same price. (Or trackless trolleys, if you will, running on power from overhead lines.) Meanwhile, SCCC, one of our city's gems, is starving -- insufficient funds to maintain the physical plant, severe cuts in educational programs. Great success, if that's how you define success.

Ken Shear

Posted Fri, Sep 7, 9:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Many thanks for picking up the good news that the city is moving ahead with a high-priority transit connection Downtown. And while I recognize that the bulk of your post was meant as an editorial, there are a few factual errors in your article that I thought you would be interested in correcting.

You wrote:

“As previously noted, steel-wheeled streetcars, unlike rubber-tired trolleybuses, can’t handle Yesler Way, the more direct route up Pill Hill. So they’ll have to dog-leg around for four-plus extra blocks — up Jackson to 14th Avenue, thence north to Yesler and then back to Broadway, adding millions to the coast, wasted minutes to the route, and a to-be-determined quotient of congestion to the Jackson Street scrum at rush hour.”

The “dog leg” does not add millions to the cost or wasted minutes to the route. The routing via Jackson, 14th, Yesler was selected to avoid a multi-million dollar utility conflict on 12th Avenue S, and also avoids significant intersection delay for turns at 12th and Jackson. The selected route features an exclusive streetcar lane southbound on 14th, so the net effect is that the route is longer than the alternative but the travel time is the same. Additionally, the routing provides service to the heart of the Little Saigon neighborhood and to Bailey Gatzert Elementary, rather than bypassing these locations.

And while this is not a factual error, you decided to omit a key motivation for constructing a high-capacity urban circulator: supporting economic development by providing an appealing, easy to use option for relatively short trips between urban neighborhoods. Projects like the Portland Streetcar and South Lake Union Streetcar have demonstrated the ability to attract and organize economic development. That is why the Obama Administration has supported these projects across the country with Urban Circulator and TIGER grants for streetcar projects.

As the Transit Master Plan details, a new bus circulator is not needed downtown. Multiple bus routes already perform that function. This planning work is for a new, higher level of service. I encourage you to read the updated Transit Master Plan here: http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/transitmasterplan.htm

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 5:07 a.m. Inappropriate

I used to drive a trolleybus from 5th/Jackson to where the FHSC used to end, along Jackson, 12th, Broadway, offering a ride to everyone along the way at Metro bus stops. I even explained to riders where I was going, and could offer them a lift. I did this for several months, every afternoon with few takers along the way.
FHST 'may' offer a high capacity option to that dog-leg, but having lots of capacity doesn't parlay into having lots of riders.
Based on my actual experience of trying to drum up business along the route, I predict the streetcar will be a total FLOP.
Another $160 million of Sound Transit tax revenue flushed down the toilet.
Next Project - Please!

007

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate


Aaron Pickus (who is Mayor McGinn’s press aide) should read more carefully before alleging “factual errors.” As near as I can tell, he alleges just one, and it’s a chimera. The comparison I drew was between building a streetcar line from downtown to First and Capitol Hills and running a trolleybus line there. The “multi-million-dollar utility conflict on 12th Avenue South,” which I described in a linked previous story (“A Desire Named Streetcar”), pertains only to the streetcar option: Digging up the street to lay track would entail moving a water main. Trolleybuses would encounter no such obstacle.
Better yet, with their superior traction and braking, trolleybuses could avoid the congestion and signal delays at 12th and Jackson and 14th and Jackson by taking the steeper but more direct Yesler Way route mentioned in this piece (also detailed in the previous one and urged by transit planner Jack Whisner, a perennial wise voice in the wilderness). Such a routing would also serve the city-county government complex, Yesler Terrace, and Harborview Hospital, a major destination for both workers and carless low-income citizens, which the streetcar route bypasses. According to my odometer, it would shave .8 mile — about 30 percent — off the 2.4-mile route being built. And it would not require making 14th Avenue one-way and reducing mobility by other modes, as the streetcar routing does.
The 14th Avenue dogleg does not extend service to “the heart of the Little Saigon neighborhood” as Aaron reports. The center of that commercial district (it’s hardly a neighborhood) is 12th and Jackson. It’s a bit ironic to hear Little Saigon now cited as an important destination. Sound Transit, which is paying the streetcar line as compensation for canceling a half-billion-dollar light-rail tunnel and station under First Hill. It insisted the city lay tracks rather than spending the money more efficiently on enhanced trolleybus service. (City officials, to their discredit, readily complied rather than negotiating as other municipalities have when Sound Transit tried to impose perverse requirements.) But in order to save just $5.2 million, Sound Transit also nixed another promised Link station, at Graham Street and MLK Way, that would have served a similar commercial district as well as the region’s leading Vietnamese Buddhist temple (and bridged the 1.7-mile gap between the Alaska and Othello Street stations).
But of course a Graham station would not enhance the redevelopment of a large public housing project, as the Alaska and Othello stations did. Aaron is correct: Boosting development is a main (often nearly the only) reason for building streetcars. That’s why Vulcan insisted on the South Lake Union line and helped pay for it.
So is a circulator needed to “attract and organize development” downtown? Seems like First Avenue is getting pretty well built out without it.
As Aaron also notes, the contorted First Hill route will provide front-door service to Bailey Gatzert Elementary. Is this a more important destination than Harborview? If so, perhaps we should run streetcars to all 97 schools in the Seattle district.
Whoops. Don’t want to give the city’s planners any ideas.
Finally, Crosscut doesn’t have an editorial page or editorial board and doesn't run “editorials”—statements of institutional opinion. Writers may certainly express opinions in articles, but those opinions are our own.

Posted Fri, Sep 7, 10 p.m. Inappropriate

"Projects like the Portland Streetcar and South Lake Union Streetcar have demonstrated the ability to attract and organize economic development"

Anyone who thinks that the S.L.U.T. had anything whatsoever to do with the development in South Lake Union is an utter idiot. That development would have occurred with or without that useless little toy train.

I get a kick out of seeing how the S.L.U.T. has to wait at intersections before crossing Mercer now, after the Mercer two-way conversion opened. And, I also laughed out loud when a streetcar trying to cross Mercer was blocked by a car on the tracks, and the streetcar driver just leaned on the streetcar's horn for a good thirty seconds continuously, as if the car could move anywhere, since it was completely blocked where it was. Talk about nothing but a stupidly expensive bus on rails. What a stupid waste of money the SLUT really is.

Also, since the Mercer conversion, I now see bicyclists riding right down the streetcar tracks to cross Mercer, even doing that in the opposite direction from which the streetcar travels. This is completely illegal of course, but, they are on bicycles, after all, and everyone knows that bicyclists never have to obey traffic laws.

Lincoln

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 11:04 p.m. Inappropriate

With respect to the bicyclists vs. the streetcar, I waver about whose side to take, just as I wonder whether I should be on Iran's side or Saudi Arabia's.

NotFan

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 1:53 p.m. Inappropriate

The First Hill Streetcar connection to Waterfront Streetcar line is supportable as eventual line reaches Interbay shipping canal, or even up to Queen Anne & Center. Streetcar on 1st Ave isn't possible with Left-lane/Center-station arrangement as proposed. Rebuilding 1st Ave will be tough enough without mixed transit arrangements. Nor will money spent not on new sidewalks be appreciated walking. The curbside lane with curb extensions at stations and crosswalk points is possible but a Trolleybus Circulator to Queen Anne is the better choice for more electric transit meeting higher capacity.
What was that about bus circulators NOT needed?

Trolleybus circulator routes from the Waterfront/1st Ave up to Broadway, from Belltown to Lake Union, could do this job ideally. Once again, trolleybuses are left unimproved while roaring diesels run empty through town. Seattle does not employ competent transportation agency managers. Mercer West is just as outrageous as the bore tunnel. The boulevard design for Alaskan Way will be a giant bottleneck with a high accident rate.

A weak Seawall is nothing to worry about? Not worry about a giant tube set in soils prone to liquifaction. Deeper compacted soils supposedly safe? Water will seep in under around the tube all the way down, filter off the most crumbly soils and over time produce voids permenantly. The BOX Cut/Cover solidifies bayfront soils therefore the better choice in every actually important regard.

The DBT will fail horrendously and take Seattle with it.
This is a criminal act being committed upon its good people.
Call it criminal incompentence, reckless endangerment, high risk profiteering, rigged & censored studies (doubtless all true), predict disgraceful fiasco. I aim the word 'disgraceful' at engineering professionals who shirk their obligation to explain inferior engineering obvious in the Seattle case.

Sorry that over-educated psuedo-environmentalists who don't explain argument supporting the DBT-MESS-WeirdWay occassionally deserve to be embarrassed. Try being shock about absurd, dangerous engineering accepted by the supposedly responsible Left.
STOP the DBT or fn shut up.

Wells

Posted Sat, Sep 8, 7:40 p.m. Inappropriate

@Lincoln, I don't doubt that the SLU streetcar has affected development there; it was very important to Vulcan for example. I think (and the reading I've done supports this) that streetcars can affect the speed of development changes that are already happening, and can affect the pedestrian orientation of buildings nearby. In your defense I've seen evidence that both streetcar and light rail stations can affect how development is organized, but not that they can cause development to occur that won't happen otherwise.

My concern about streetcars designed to affect the urban environment is that they are not always designed also to meet a transportation need. They're a pretty expensive (and gentrifying) way to affect the nature of development if there aren't other practical benefits. And good transportation access will affect the longer term development success just as much if not more than the urban design effect.

The SLU streetcar has affected the quality of urban space but, it seems to me, primarily as an amenity. It leaves the transit challenge posed by SLU and Denny Triangle development mostly unsolved because it requires an awkward transfer to and from regional services, has slow out-of-direction travel, doesn't penetrate the downtown and reach major transportation termini, and has nowhere near the capacity needed for SLU to someday have similar transit use as the rest of the downtown. If SLU and Denny Triangle are going to keep growing to become a northern reach of downtown Seattle, a whole lot more attention and investment need to be paid to better transit access, and tying those neighborhoods into the regional transit system I think.

But that doesn't mean that it's not worth looking at a proposal that might make two poor investments better. Whether streetcars are a good idea or not, there will be two suboptimal ones on the ground. Connected, they could serve a strong circulation function for tourists and for commuter rail and ferry passengers to get the last mile to their workplaces.

Posted Wed, Sep 12, 12:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Lincoln and Rob Fellows: it is true that Vulvan mentioned the SLU line in its real estate marketing and the development was correlated with the line. But we do not know the relative importance of the SLU line to the development compared with the zoning changes, Mercer Street project, UW investments, Fred Hutch investments, and other city actions. the effectiveness of the path not taken is not and will not be known. the $50m in government funds that matched the LID funds could have been spent differently. the 18K annual platform hours taken from souteast Seattle to subsidize the SLU line could have been spent differently. in SLU, they might have improved ETB Route 70 to 10-minute or shorter headway all day; Route 70 penetrates both downtown Seattle and the U District via Eastake. Route 70 provides much more pedestrian advantage that the short slow SLU line; it is only 1.3 miles long; it is three blocks from Route 70 and three blocks from routes 26-28; in fall 2012, new Route 40 will have 15-minute headway, extend to Ballard via Fremont and penetrate downtown. some assert that the tracks provide a signal to development. the ETB overhead provides that a similar signal. the Route 70 overhead was new in the late 90s. that line is under utilized. neither the SLU nor First Hill streetcar lines are effective transit investments. what streetcar would be? It would be long and fast enough to provide pedestrian advantage. it would serve a corridor that demanded tight headways by multi-car trains. Toronto has several. Perhaps the R2B2 line on Aurora advanced by Greg Hill and Preston Schiller in the early 90s? Perhaps an Interurban redux past Rob Fellows house in Greenwood via Fremont and Phinney Ridge? It is difficult to find one. the high capital cost has opportunity cost given scarce transport funds; the capital funds for one streetcar could fund improved service frequency for several bus lines. the city decides how much priority to provide either mode. SDOT is improving bus flow on a few corridors today. there are several transport needs that take higher priority than streetca connectors: the Metro fiscal crisis, sidewalks on transit arterials that lack them, several critical links of ETB overhead, pavement management, a new Magnolia Bridge, etc.

eddiew

Posted Sun, Sep 9, 6:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Aside from the fact that ST/SDOT/METRO blew it when not looking at frequent Trolleybuses going from Colman Dock, up Yesler and along Broadway to achieve superior service at a fraction of the cost of FHSC, trying now to connect the dots from one crappy streetcar to the other seems like a fitting exercise to blow some more cash.
Why not take Mr. Fellows advice and do something practical - even bold, like study a new Link Green Line going through the existing transit tunnel, then out to Convention Station to a real stop in S. Lake Union. Continue onto Seattle Center, and out the old monorail alignment to Ballard.

Now your connecting some dots that actually matter, with something likely to get the job done. (yes, all exclusive ROW too)

007

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 7:11 a.m. Inappropriate

@Mic: I prefer that as well, and have argued that a light rail line that reuses Convention Place and continues north to SLU, Fremont, SPU, crossing then to Leary and on to 24th in Ballard would be a better use of tunnel capacity long term than reserving that tunnel capacity for peak period trips from Everett that are better served by bus or commuter rail. But the political foundation for rail here is the (nutty) proposition that connecting Everett with Tacoma by light rail is somehow necessary and beneficial, so that idea is rarely taken seriously. It is by far the better approach to providing regional connections to the developing north downtown, and a better approach to developing a rail network within Seattle. I'd argue for a Westlake alignment over 15th though, since there are more active destinations connected that way.

I still that once we've made the decision to build two expensive streetcar lines though, right or wrong, then it makes sense to consider things that could transform them from amenities into a proper circulation system downtown. This seems more useful than before now that Metro has eliminated the ride free area. It might not be my first priority, but I'd rather have one good circulation and tourist investment rather than two that are less effective.

Posted Mon, Sep 10, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

The First Hill to Waterfront Streetcar line is supportable as eventual extensions reach Interbay and up to Queen Anne & Center. Streetcar on 1st Ave isn't possible with Left-lane/Center-station arrangement as proposed. Rebuilding 1st Ave will be tough enough without mixed transit arrangements. A 1st Ave Trolleybus Circulator to Queen Anne is the better choice for electric transit meeting higher capacity.
What was that about bus circulators NOT needed?

Trolleybus circulator routes from the Waterfront/1st Ave up to Broadway, from Belltown to Lake Union, would operate on these short routes ideally. Once again, trolleybuses are left unimproved while roaring diesels run empty through town. Seattle does NOT employ competent transportation agency managers. Mercer West is as outrageous as the DBT. The design for Alaskan Way will be a giant bottleneck with a high accident rate. The DBT in few decades will cause building collapse and forced demolishments its entire length. Seattlers cowardly ignore the danger and imagine a pretty playground that will also be destroyed by vulnerably weak 'stabilized waterfront soils' when the Big One hits. Seattle: the armpit of the Pacific Northwest.

Wells

Posted Sun, Sep 16, 7:49 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattles' Planners, Transportation people, all of the Electeds and of course the elected City Council members have turned the Seattle I was born in, and loved to work in until about 20 years ago, into mush.

Every decision made is far too expensive, disconnected from reality (budgets and actual need of service) and run by bullies and morons.

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