Community Post

Streetcar Update: First Hill Wants More

This week the city council approved the conceptual expansion of streetcars to new parts of the city. But the trick is that those plans are largely just wishes, seeing as there’s no funding tied to most of the new lines.  But it’s a different story with the “First Hill” line:  it has $120 million in capital funding and long-term operational funding from the Sound Transit proposition we approved in the November election.

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the original route for the line was to run between the International District and Capitol Hill via Broadway. But that’s not the first choice of the friendly folks on First Hill.  They’ve been angling to get the route changed to run further west, going up Boren as far as Madison before turning back east toward Broadway and the hill. In fact, they’ve been writing letters to the city council to try and get promises that the streetcar will serve that part of their neighborhood, and Jan Drago appears to be on board with their request.

Here’s the three main options for the route:

View Larger Map

Via Broadway: (shown in red on the map) This is the default route and the one that drove the $120 million budget from Sound Transit.  On the plus side, this is the most direct route and thus probably the cheapest and will likely have the fastest travel time from end to end. It also directly serves Swedish Hospital which is a major employer.   The downside is that streetcars aim to serve neighborhood “main streets”, with a mix of retail, residential, and businesses.  Broadway south of Madison will likely never fit that description since it’s so institutional and has a steep grade on the south end that makes such developments impractical.   Additionally, Broadway already has transit in the form of the #9 bus that could pose some duplication and conflicts with a streetcar.

Via Boren: (shown in yellow on the map) The route favored by First Hill folks since it would cover more of their neighborhood. But it will be about 1,000 feet longer and thus more expensive, possibly more expensive than the budget allows.  And similar to Broadway, Boren is not envisioned to ever take on the “main street” sort of development.  Such a route also takes the line away from Seattle U, which would be a big source of ridership.

Via 12th: (shown in green on the map)Unlike the other options, 12th Ave is developing into a diverse mix of retail, residences, education, and employment centers.  It also has a nice wide right-of-way and doesn’t have nearly as steep of a grade to climb as Broadway or Boren.  And perhaps most importantly, it currently lacks any sort of transit options, even though the people in the area have asked for transit service for a long time.  

A line on Broadway would be a little bit useful for residents of the Central District.  People on the far west side of the neighborhood could walk uphill a few blocks and get a connection.  A line on Boren would be totally out of reach for us.  But a route on 12th could serve a lot of people in the CD, students at Seattle U, workers at Swedish, and residents on the east side of First Hill.   And it would provide a long-needed connection between the CD and Capitol Hill.

I’m sure our friends on First Hill will make the point that the route is intended to replace the “First Hill” light rail station that was nixed due to cost. But in some ways that’s really an accident of conceptual naming, seeing as the light rail stop was going to be on the east edge of their neighborhood at Broadway & Madison.  The station could have easily have been called the “Seattle U” station and thus change the entire discussion.

Bottom line: other neighborhoods are organized and working with the city to get new transit service to their neighborhood. If we don’t speak up and get on the list, we could be left out for a generation.  Maybe it’s time to write some letters of our own.

0 thoughts on “Streetcar Update: First Hill Wants More

  1. Also make the connection to the existing dormant Waterfront Trolley tracks at 5th & Jackson. This would connect the neighborhoods to Pioneer Square, the Ferries, Pike Place Market, and the Sculpture park. I would also vote for the 12th Ave route serving the college and the emerging district there. Students are heavier users of public transit too.

  2. Broadway already has transit in the form of the #9 bus that could pose some duplication and conflicts with a streetcar.

    Doesn’t stop the SLUT sharing Eastlake with the multiple 70 series (70, 71 etc) of buses. In fact we have the complication of the DIFFERENT overhead wire systems for streetcars and electric buses.

    Of course we had Paul Allen as a driving force……

    PS: the route along 12th negates the original motivation for this streetcar line: a substitute for the eliminated 1st Hill Light Rail station (for the hospital staff & patients).

  3. According to the SDOT project manager, there’s different levels of complication with overhead trolley bus lines. Crossing them perpendicularly is hard but achievable, and is done only once on the SLUT line. They can also run in parallel if the trolley bus wires are moved over towards the middle of the roadway.

    But some intersections on Broadway are more difficult because of wires that allow buses to turn, such as at the intersections with Pine, Jefferson, and Union. In fact, that might require a Broadway route to switch technology to use the bus power wires. That would complicate operations at each end of the line and make the vehicles incompatible with the other streetcar lines.

  4. Where is this supposed to be, on Broadway betwen Denny and John, or between John and Thomas? As long as this streetcar links up with that, it’s all good.

    I also think 12th is the better route. Yeah, it’s a three block walk to Sweedish, but 12th has better potential for expansion and will cause less disruption during construction. It also serves the CD better than a Boren-Broadway route, and as long as it’s connected at both ends to light rail, it will do wonders for the expansion project bordered by Dearborn, 12th, Weller and Rainier.

  5. It will be on the east side of Broadway in the block between Denny & John (i.e., the south west corner is where the Jack In The Box was)

  6. and move some of the bus service to 12th. i don’t consider 12th as big of an arterial as broadway and as such a trolley doesn’t make as much sense there – in my opinion.

  7. I’m for ALL of us getting more public transit, and if more public transit on Boren and Broadway will serve hospital workers and patients, that’s good. But I think the idea that a streetcar on Boren and Broadway is a substitute for the eliminated light rail station deserves some thought. The “lost” service would have been a station at approximately Madison and Broadway (with, as I recall, all entrances north of Madison and west of Broadway). Even though this was called the “First Hill Station” it’s important to consider the location of what has been lost.

    More than that, the light rail station would have been a neighborhood (First Hill, Pike/Pine, Central Area) connection to a regional high(ish)rapid transit system. Streetcars are not high capacity regional transit. They operate in mixed traffic with no right-of-way priority, and are intended to serve local circulation needs, not regional service. Not exactly a substitute for a single light rail station.

    Sound Transit studies recognize that one of the significant factors recommending streetcars (probably more than bus routes) is contribution to the economic development of the neighborhoods through which streetcars run. At first glance, it looks like there is more opportunity for the investment of a streetcar line to contribute to economic development of the Central Area on 12th Avenue, particularly south of Union. Look at the undeveloped and underdeveloped land there. On Boren and Broadway, not so much.

    If a streetcar went north on 12th Avenue from Jackson and then west on Madison to Broadway and then north, it would go to precisely the location of the lost light First Hill light rail station. Alternatively, if a streetcar went on 12th and then west on Pike or Pine to Broadway it would serve streets that are much like those where streetcars have been most successful. Streets with a combination of uses: residences, places of employment, education, shopping, and entertainment.

  8. Add my voice to the obligatory “I’m all for more transit service” statement, but help me understand a few things.

    1) What/Who is this supposed to serve? Is it suppose to move people, in mass, from 5th and Jackson and Metro Bus Tunnels to jobs on First Hill? Is it a student mover? Does SDOT have the kinds of demand studies that suggest high ridership?

    2) Are the neighbors “writing letters” ad hoc (i.e…”we support options 1 or 2 or 3″)? Or is this part of a larger effort by a specific community council?

    3) With regard to competition, I don’t think SDOT cares. They don’t run Metro and have long been jealous of their lack of control.

    I think streetcars can make some sense, but when riding along at the speed of traffic, why not just deploy a Metro bus? I suspect they are doing this to not get left behind as our friends from the south have lapped Seattle several times wrt transit.

  9. Here’s a document that Bill found from Sound Transit that has some hard data:

    1. It is intended to connect the International District light rail stop with the Capitol Hill light rail stop, thus expanding access to light rail for people in the vicinity of First Hill. It makes sense to leverage the big investment in light rail wherever possible. Sound Transit estimated that the streetcar would have 3,000 to 3,500 daily riders for the route on Broadway
    2. The main push is by the First Hill Improvement Association: (note that the majority of members in that group are businesses or institutions)
    3. We’ve been getting the short end of the stick on Metro allocation for years. Most of the bus routes in our neighborhood are overcrowded and frequently late. Streetcars give us transit options in the city and insures that the hours can’t be transferred to other parts of the county

    As for why not buses, Sound Transit data indicates that streetcars get much higher ridership than buses on the same route. They use an example of the Tacoma streetcar in the document above, saying it replaced an old bus route and saw a 500% jump in ridership. Streetcars also provide an infrastructure commitment that encourages new density and development along the route.

  10. Thanks, Scott. I can’t tell if I’m smarter or just more confused after reading that planning doc.

    This makes me a bit more comfortable with the concept as all I’ve seen to date is a rushed effort to get something, anything on the ground (seattle playing catch up).

    I am with the city/ST on capacity and trickle down improvements to the neighborhood, but I kind of challenge the notion that more expensive streetcars are the option b/c buses aren’t attractive. Wouldn’t it make more sense to make the bloody buses more attractive? Metro buses are hugely antiquated and behind the times, not to mention occasionally unsafe and inconsistent. So make them better, make them more modern and easier to load/unload (how about a pre-paid fare kiosk?, station rationalization?), and more attractive at a lower cost.

  11. Currently the #9 bus is pretty useless. It used to run more frequently, but now runs once an hour at the most and only during peak times, basically only from 12th $ Jackson to north Broadway. It doesn’t efficiently get from Rainier to Capitol Hill anymore like it used to a few years ago. If light rail stations increased demand, I can imagine it running much more often, though.

    What’s the advantage of streetcars over buses, other than their “charm?”

  12. Here’s what Sound Transit says in the document linked above:

    Streetcar systems have several advantages over bus transit that make them more attractive to
    both riders and the communities they serve.

    • Simplicity of Use – Even in a city like Seattle with a robust and excellent bus system, there
    are still some discretionary transit riders who avoid buses but who would ride a streetcar if it
    were available. Streetcars are more attractive than buses to occasional riders because of their
    fixed-route nature. Streetcar system maps remain fixed, and riders are confident they know
    where a streetcar will go. Bus system maps, on the other hand, are subject to change, and
    learning the system well enough to use it with confidence is often too large a hurdle for
    occasional riders.1

    • Rider Comfort – with spacious interiors and more space per passenger; multiple, wide doors,
    low-floors that allow level boarding, and a smoother and quieter ride, streetcars often provide
    a higher level of comfort to the rider than buses.

    • Increased Capacity – Streetcars can accommodate larger passenger loads and allow faster
    loading and unloading than typical buses. These characteristics result in greater capacity for
    streetcars than for buses. In this case, it is possible to purchase low-floor bus vehicles
    designed to appear more like a rail vehicle that when combined with fare payment changes
    would make this a less important difference between modes.

    • Public Support – Streetcar systems generally generate higher public and voter support than
    bus improvements alone.

    • Ridership Advantage/Desirability of Use – As noted above, streetcar systems have several
    advantages over bus transit that make them more attractive to riders. One local example can
    be found in the City of Tacoma. The Tacoma Link light rail line between the downtown
    Theater District and the Tacoma Dome Station replaced a Downtown Connector bus service
    that previously operated on Pacific Avenue/South 25th Street in the same market. The
    Downtown Connector was a free, peak-hour weekday shuttle that operated every 12 minutes.
    During summer 2002, midday service was added to the Downtown Connector during
    Tacoma Link construction.

    In August 2003, Tacoma Link opened as a free, 1.7 mile long all-day service operating at a
    frequency of 10 minutes on weekdays. The truest comparison of ridership on the two
    services is between the summer of 2002 and the same period subsequent to the Link system’s
    opening in August 2003. Even accounting for the slightly improved service level, the
    opening of rail service clearly and dramatically increased transit ridership, with data showing
    a 500 percent improvement.

  13. I became a convert to streetcars when I lived in San Francisco. However much trains and buses may seem equal when a train line starts-out, over time the train line tends to keep getting better while the buses don’t.

    Also, people will organize their lives around streetcars, because they’re permanent routes–people will factor in the train lines when making choices about where they live, where they work, and where they choose to shop, go out, etc. For the foreseeable future, once a city has streetcars, one can assume there will be more of them, they’ll get more convenient, and more people you know will use them, etc. People bank on this–literally.

  14. Is there a choice between streetcar and bus? The advantage of a streetcar line over a bus route at the moment is that there is $120 million dedicated to a streetcar route that “provides a connection to regional transit hubs” to compensate for the elimination of the proposed Sound Transit light rail station at Madison and Boylston. There is a commitment to complete this streetcar line within seven years or less.

  15. Another advantage of the route on 12th: it splits the difference between the two nearby Swedish campuses, First Hill and Cherry Hill, thereby serving both.

  16. The bicycle lanes up and down 12th are the best way to get from Capitol Hill to the ID. Please tell me that we aren’t going to put bicycle killing trolley tracks on 12th.

  17. We need them going down broadway, 15th + 19th. Replace a couple of bus routes with street car runs that run down those streets and then down madison to downtown. Or have one go the length of madison (or some route like that).

  18. I agree. I do not suggest we look a gift horse in the mouth; rather, I reject the idea that streetcars are effective modes of long distance transit. They are great for intra city transit, but I fear we’re going to go streetcar crazy and build long distance routes that are not efficient and don’t solve transit issues. Think the 48 route, a frankenstein route from Ballard to Columbia City that is totally inefficient.

  19. The Broadway routing is direct and does serve First Hill Swedish Campus and Seattle University directly, however the Boren-Madison routing has some advantages: It is closer to the dense heart of First Hill, and still serves the NW and SW corners of the Seattle University campus. If you take a look at the 3-D view of the built environment east and west of Broadway in Google Earth, you will quickly see the strikingly higher density west of Broadway. Slowing down the through trips a bit by taking this slightly less direct route is not necessarily a big problem because most of the trips will probably not be through trips; the regional trips would be on light rail between Capitol Hill and the International District. More frequent bus service up Madison would also help.

    12th Ave. deserves better transit service, but the ridership potential there is nowhere near as high as it is further west. It is also a major bicycle route which makes it less than ideal as a streetcar route. I might suggest a combination of improved bus service on 12th along with the Boren-Madison routing for the First Hill Streetcar for better transit coverage of this area. Some kind of pedestrian hillclimb assist (covered escalator, or public elevators integrated into new construction, as we have downtown) on some of the steepest blocks between downtown and First Hill would also be a boon.

  20. While the 12th Ave route would better serve SU and Cherry Hill, the Boren/Madison route would run four blocks closer to Virginia Mason than the original Broadway route and much closer than 12th.

  21. thanks scott for getting this information out there. i think it should be noted, however, that 12th has not really been presented by SDOT or Sound Transit as a concrete option. Right now, they are only talking about “first hill” stations, which are currently envisioned as a line down Broadway OR Boren (which is first hill preference). i think it is going to be the 12th avenue neighborhood’s job to voice a preference (if there is indeed a desire to have the streetcar on 12th) and to be aware of the possibly downsides of wanting it on 12th, like a potential tax on the business district if the project happens to come in over budget (which these projects often do – fully funded now, vs. fully funded when it gets built, are two different things) or the actual infrequency of fixed station stops when compared to buses (maybe a bus line is better!). The idea of it being located on 12th came out of the forums that Drago sponsored over the summer. notes can be found here:

    although according to her office, these notes will not be used in the planning stage that ST and SDOT are about to undertake.

    something else to consider is that this line is planned to end at the Sound Transit stop on Broadway, and i think that the length of it from Madison/Union to John is very important for the business district and for Seattle Central ridership. even if the south end of the line were to locate on 12th, it is important for this end to remain on broadway, for the health and vibrancy of the business district there.

    which brings me to my last point. if streetcars are supposed to generate new development on “main street” business districts, then isn’t 12th much more of a “main street” than broadway or boren? and while there is a lot more residential density up on Boren, there is no retail. and when you think about what is coming on 12th over the next ten years (up to 10 new SU buildings, new mixed-use development on the KC detention center 9-acre lot, new SHA mixed-use buildings related to Yesler Terrace, etc. etc.) it makes you wonder…

  22. Perhaps I missed this, but perhaps the planners can meet in the middle by creating a circular style streetcar network that hits most of the major areas that we’ve discussed above. If, for example, the streetcar went north on 12th, it could return via Broadway to Boren, linking back up with the route at 12th/Boren. The infrastructure cost is nearly identical if you have a street car running on either side of the street in both directions as opposed to having the street car run up one street, and back on another (similar to the SLUT). The folks on 12th would be happy, and the folks on Boren/Madison would be happy. Makes sense to me…