Seattle goes gah-gah over choo-choos

As Seattle considers a plan to extend the South Lake Union Streetcar line, it's time to decide whether returning to a 19th-century transportation method is really the answer.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's old streetcar line, circa 1930s. (Seattle Municipal Archives)

As Seattle considers a plan to extend the South Lake Union Streetcar line, it's time to decide whether returning to a 19th-century transportation method is really the answer.

We have seen the future of Seattle mass transit, and it looks suspiciously like the past. It is shiny and red and goes clackity-clack between South Lake Union and Westlake. It travels at a maximum speed of 20 mph and costs about $40 million per mile to build.

Seattle, it seems, has gone downright gah-gah over choo-choos. Whatever the price in dollars and aggravation, the city is determined to take the A-Train. We haven't yet completed that $2.7 billion-dollar rail line to Sea-Tac, but Sound Transit is desperately seeking more billions to extend that line to Northgate. We have the new South Lake Union Streetcar. And this week, planners unveiled their sketchy visions for streetcar lines in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and the University District.

All this stokes the ongoing debate: How do we best relieve traffic, or at least provide an alternative way to get around? More roads? Or buses? Or rails? If the rail buffs have their way, we'll soon be looking at and living in a cityscape reminiscent of another century — the 19th.

The operative map for Seattle's transit vision is about a century old. You can go back to 1910, when Gramma and Grampa got around town just fine on a system of about 70 miles of streetcar tracks, including the legendary Interurban trolley that rumbled all the way to Everett and Tacoma. It was a fine system, and we probably should have kept it.

But we didn't. The tide turned in about 1911, when the city hired a smart fellow (read "consultant") named Virgil Bogue to come out and draw up a bold new plan for Seattle. Bogue looked around, hired a crew of draftsmen, and produced an inch-thick document calling for an elaborate, New York-style transit system, with subways and elevated trains and a tunnel under Lake Washington.

Put to a popular vote, the Bogue Plan lost by nearly 2-1. That was the beginning of the end. By the 1930s, the city was ripping up tracks and replacing streetcars with buses. The Interurban made its last run in 1939, just as engineers were completing the first floating bridge across the lake. By the beginning of the War, the transition was complete; Seattle had banked its future on the automobile.

Rail buffs blame a nationwide conspiracy by General Motors to sell more buses. But rail transit was always geographically challenged in Seattle. All those picturesque hills and lakes serve as significant obstacles to streetcars that don't climb hills, and don't float.

In any event, things haven't worked out well. In the late 60s and early 70s, voters rejected plans for new freeways and for a proposed rapid transit system. So the city had to grow and prosper without any major expansion of its transportation system. For some time, the preferred strategy was buses, or more precisely "bus rapid transit," which uses express buses in exclusive transit-only lanes, including the downtown bus tunnel.

But by the 1990s, the city was gridlocked. Drivers rolled down their car windows, shook their collective fists and bellowed something like "Do something. Do anything. But fix this mess!"

And that's more or less what's happening. Government is doing something and anything — digging holes, pouring concrete, laying rails, buying railcars — in a desperate attempt to rebuild what it dismantled 70 years ago. It's a system development by committee, or by many committees. Sound Transit builds light rail and operates those commuter trains to Tacoma and Everett. King County Metro builds and runs the new streetcar, along with the existing bus system. The state is adding HOV and transit lanes to the freeways. For a while, we had yet another agency building a monorail, until it collapsed on itself.

Which is what skeptics expect to happen with some or all of those other railroad-builders. Critics of rail trail transit scored a huge victory last fall when voters rejected Sound Transit's bid for billions more tax dollars. Yet the streetcar fad suggests that somebody out there is still determined to ride those rails.

Rail critics see their own conspiracy. Randal O'Toole is an Oregon economist and self-styled libertarian who argues that Seattle is about to join dozens of cities that have got little or no benefits from the billions spent on light rail. Trolleys and streetcars are 19th century technology that is too slow, too dangerous and too expensive, he says. "Light rail is simply one more way to take money from the pockets of ordinary taxpayers and put it in the pockets of wealthy businesses."

Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, a citizen group opposed to light rail, argues that Seattle had built one of the world's best bus systems, and could adapt HOV lanes and traffic lights to move express buses more efficiently than light rail.

But for every O'Toole there is a Todd Litman, a Victoria, BC, consultant who travels the world advising cities from Dubai to Valparaiso to San Jose how to build rail transit systems. And Litman is pro-streetcar. "Seattle originally developed around streetcars and railways," Litman says. "It doesn't make sense to argue that it can't work again."

Litman learned his way around transportation issues as a volunteer bicycle advocate in Olympia, and eventually studied transit issues at Evergreen State College. He frequently finds himself at odds with the likes of O'Toole.

Ultimately, the choice between rail transit and bus transit is made by passengers, he says. "There is a bias out there. People will pay more for a Mercedes than for a Chevy. There is nothing wrong with people wanting something more prestigious, and they view light rail and streetcars as more comfortable and more prestigious."

But do taxpayers want to pay $40 million per mile for a little prestige?

John Niles, a transportation consultant and critic of light rail, is a little kinder toward streetcars. They are probably a mistake, he says, "but the scale of the error is so much smaller than with light rail."

Streetcars have a few things going for them, he says. South Lake Union businesses are picking up part of the costs of the new line, and hopefully that would be the case with other lines, he says. They may attract some tourists. And neighborhood businesses are very fond of them.

"As transportation, they don't make much sense," he says. "But they're nice. They're an amenity. They're street candy."


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter who now lives in Port Townsend.