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.
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Cute to go at South Lake Union

McGinnville slathers over a Central Connector, just as Metro gets set to launch RapidRide bus routes downtown - with one distinctly un-rapid flaw.

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.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

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 SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.