Seattle area residents appear set to soon benefit from visionary aspirations of Melinda French Gates and of MacKenzie Scott for a significantly extended greenway along Puget Sound, as well as from their financial generosity in arranging for $45 million in new funding to implement that worthy ambition.
The recent multibillion dollar expenditure made by every driver, statewide, to remove the Alaska Way Viaduct and to replace most of its functions with a tunnel will, thus, also be enhanced by this wonderful vision and strategic investment.
However, these multibillion-and-multimillion dollar revenue decisions respecting those rather immense public-and-private funds merit a careful assessment regarding whether a still better – and, indeed, iconic – waterfront esplanade can be developed by incorporating Seattle taxpayers' previously substantial investments in the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar line rather than by somewhat casually throwing away major amenity, environmental and mobility potentials. Adding a revived and enhanced streetcar line to the Elliott Bay Connections vision could transform an upgraded Seattle waterfront from another nice waterfront park into something truly exceptional.
Not only could such a rail component become a signature element of the greater Seattle area and a place that visitors from around the world would want to see and experience, but the process could also be a major step towards both improving environmental sustainability and also improving regional mobility – all with relatively minimal additional costs to regional taxpayers and without delaying the waterfront proposal’s 2026 target date.
After San Francisco's elevated Embarcadero freeway was demolished in 1991, streetcar tracks were installed along the redeveloped waterfront. The vintage streetcars that now ply that six mile route every few minutes have not only proved to be extremely popular with visitors, just as the city's world-famous cable cars have long been, but they are also well used by residents and others who live and work along that waterfront.1
Fortunately, a new, enhanced streetcar line could be installed along the Seattle waterfront at relatively modest cost, and fairly quickly. This is largely because a substantial portion of the track from Seattle's former, 1.6 mile Benson Waterfront Streetcar line, which was terminated in 2005 without public input,2 remains intact.
The recently announced $45 million plan would remove the remaining sections of the currently unused trolley tracks and replace them with "a walking and biking path,"3 despite the fact that sidewalks already exist, some rather broad, along most of both sides of Alaska Way.
Worldwide tramway revival
Tram or trolley track construction has been undergoing a boom, worldwide, as city planners and environmental experts have increasingly recognized that this form of urban transportation can, with good planning, be far superior to ever more cars, ever wider freeways, and ever more parking lots for increasing mobility, minimizing energy consumption, reducing air pollution, and generally improving the quality of urban life.4
Perhaps the most outstanding of the many examples that could be cited is France. That country scrapped most of its numerous tram systems beginning in the 1930s so that all that finally remained were three truncated lines that would have been difficult to replace with buses. Typical reasons given for this swift dismantling were that streetcars were "obsolete" and were obstacles to automobile traffic.
However, as a result of rapidly increasing traffic congestion and air pollution and of growing concern about climate change, this situation underwent a dramatical reversal beginning in the 1980s. In 1985 Nantes, a city of some 320,000 in western France, became the first in Europe to restore trams where they had previously been scrapped. The resounding success of this new, second-generation surface rail system – and then of a succession of other new systems – has so far resulted in more than 30 French cities of all sizes constructing new tram lines, with still more being planned. The situation is similar in many other countries both in Europe and elsewhere.
Tramways as a tourist magnet
The San Francisco waterfront is far from the only example of trams becoming a popular visitor attraction, and even a symbol of a city. Another outstanding example is Hong Kong, whose iconic double-deck streetcars are not only a must-see for visitors but also serve as a vital transportation artery, supplementing the nearby subway lines despite their ancient vintage. Yet another example is Lisbon, Portugal, pictures of whose small, charismatic yellow trams almost always appear in advertisements and articles about that storied city.
A revived waterfront streetcar has the potential for serving many or most of Seattle's most popular visitor attractions. These include Pike Place Market, the Seattle Aquarium, the cruise ship terminals, Ivar's, the Wheel, the Victoria Clipper terminal, the various other piers, Pioneer Square, the Olympic Sculpture Park and Seattle Center (a short walk away). Moreover, a modest extension on the south end would allow it to also provide convenient access to Seattle's two great sports stadiums, Lumen Field and T-Mobile Park.
A short track connection to the existing streetcar line that ends on Jackson St. near First Ave., or a reconnection to the track that is still mostly intact on Main St., would allow the streetcars to additionally serve King Street Station and the Chinatown/International District, and perhaps even beyond to Little Saigon and all the way to Capital Hill.
The line could also be easily extended a mile further northward to serve Myrtle Edwards Park and the new Expedia waterfront campus. In fact, this was proposed years ago, before the Benson line was scrapped, by the Port of Seattle, which even offered to subsidize it.5 A further extension northward would bring convenient access to the Interbay area and to the Ballard Locks.
The questionable First Avenue Streetcar proposal
For several years there has been much discussion about constructing streetcar tracks along about a mile of First Avenue, the so-called First Avenue Streetcar, at a cost of several hundred million dollars in order to physically connect Seattle's two existing, sparsely used, streetcar lines. However, the cost for this short section has become so great and the purported benefits so dubious that it is not clear whether it will ever be built.6
Reinstating the waterfront streetcar and connecting it to the existing line on Jackson St. could accomplish most of what it is claimed that the First Avenue line would do.7 In fact, it would actually do far more. It would serve many more visitor destinations and nearby residents because of its better routing, and at a far lower cost because most of the infrastructure is already there or could be reinstalled more easily than on First Avenue.
Moreover, a revived waterfront route could also simultaneously serve as the core of a low cost and rapidly implemented secondary north-south rail transit route through Seattle, a route whose usefulness could be further enhanced with various extensions and branches. Just as it could be many years until the much debated and long delayed First Avenue streetcar line gets built, if ever, it will definitely be at least a decade and a half until Sound Transit's proposed second light rail tunnel through downtown Seattle is completed and ready for use.8
Inevitable objections to a sensible, low-cost proposal
Numerous objections are sure to be raised regarding a revived and enhanced waterfront streetcar line, in addition to the usual one of streetcars being "obsolete." One is that the line would have to be mostly single track due to space constraints. However, this is basically a non-issue because many streetcar and light rail lines, and most other rail lines around the world, operate on a single track with the use of occasional sidings for passing. Such sidings could easily be added in several extra-wide sections of Alaska Way.
Another possible objection is that the operation of historic streetcars is incompatible with providing a modern rail transit service for residents and visitors. However, numerous real world examples exist to expose this fallacy. Milan's extensive streetcar network operates modern light rail vehicles on the same tracks that streetcars nearly a century old continue to utilize.9 Hiroshima's heavily used streetcar system now runs its sleek, modern, articulated light rail vehicles on the same tracks with ancient trams that survived the World War II atomic bombing.
Opponents may additionally point out that the Waterfront Streetcar heritage vehicles are no longer available since most of them were sold to St. Louis some years ago. Although it is correct that they were sold, in another short-sighted move, there are still a large number of vintage streetcars sitting in storage and museums within the U.S. and around the world that could be borrowed or purchased for a revived and expanded waterfront streetcar operation. San Francisco has been able to accumulate more than enough of them (about 70, including both retained and acquired vehicles), and there is no reason that Seattle could not do likewise.
A history of bad mobility decisions
Many serious and costly mistakes have been made regarding transportation planning in our region over many years and across several decades, including some far more wasteful than the building of Seattle's two costly and still more highly questionable existing streetcar lines and the scrapping of the popular waterfront route.
Probably the most egregious of these, and one for which the region will continue to suffer long into the future, is the rejection of generous federal funding for a region-wide rapid transit system in 1970.10
Another is the scrapping of the Eastside railroad despite the fact that it ran largely parallel to the most congested freeway anywhere in the Northwest and could have provided an entirely congestion-free and non-polluting alternative for accessing most major destinations on the rapidly growing Eastside. Meanwhile, the nightmarish I-405 is becoming ever more congested, and will continue to do so, despite the billions being spent on endless widening projects.
Additional examples could be cited. But, in all fairness, it should be mentioned that the region has also made a few wise decisions. Probably the most important of these was the halting of the monstrous plan to carve up Seattle with a network of freeways creating a freeway density even greater than that of Los Angeles. Another was resisting pressure to scrap its zero-emissions trolley bus system, a system eminently suited for Seattle's hilly terrain and relatively cheap electric power. And still another was, of course, the decision to utilize existing railroad tracks to create the waterfront streetcar line first proposed by city councilman George Benson in 1974 and funded with millions from Seattle taxpayers.
Towards a comprehensive study
The recent announcement of a $45 million grant by Melinda French Gates, MacKenzie Scott, the
Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation and Expedia Group presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to assess Puget Sound values through a serious dialog about the future of the waterfront from the interrelated perspectives of amenities, ecology and regional transportation needs in the context of a rapidly deteriorating environment planet-wide.
Instead of rushing ahead with a proposal to rip out the tracks as quickly as possible, a wiser course of action might be pausing to carefully assess the broader picture, especially in the face of all the other transportation errors that have been made here and the impending climate catastrophe. The region has lost most of its once extensive rail infrastructure, and this may be our last chance to finally make a wise decision with regard to some of the little that remains.
1 This distance includes both a waterfront section and a substantial non-waterfront section along Market St., San Francisco's main thoroughfare. The popularity of the the service is attested to by the fact that it currently operates daily from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. with frequencies of approximately every ten minutes or less all day on weekdays and averaged 19,700 daily boardings in fiscal 2018. For general background information about the origin of this line see https://www.sfmta.com/ getting-around/muni/ historic-streetcars. Additional useful information, especially in the context of the overall city transit system, is available in Short Range Transit Plan, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), Fiscal Year 2019 - Fiscal Year 2030, https://www.sfmta.com/ sites/default/files/ reports-and-documents/ 2019/11/12-3-19_item_15_short_range_transit_plan_fy19-30.pdf.
For details about San Francisco's extensive fleet of operational historic U.S. and foreign streetcars see San Francisco’s Historic Streetcars, Market Street Railway, https://www.streetcar.org/san-franciscos-historic-streetcars/. Information about a proposed major extension is provided in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for Extension of F-Line Streetcar Service to Fort Mason Center, https://www.nps.gov/goga/ learn/management/ upload/PEPC_1_cvr_thru_ch2.pdf.
2 The initial pretexts given for suspending, and then terminating, service were that it was necessary to remove a section of track in order to demolish the viaduct and that the car barn had to be demolished in order to accommodate an outdoor sculpture park.
3Melinda French Gates, MacKenzie Scott to help transform Seattle waterfront, Seattle Times, August 23, 2023, https://www.seattletimes.com/
4 Seattle's two, lightly used, existing streetcar lines are a notable exception to this, as neither was designed to do anything useful, anything that couldn't be done as well as, or better than, by a bus, in sharp contrast to Europe's proliferating second-generation tram networks. Moreover, neither has much that visitors would find particularly interesting and couldn't access more conveniently by bus or the "Link" light rail line.
The partially privately funded, 1.3 mile, South Lake Union Streetcar (SLUT) is basically a vanity project that was intended to make the nearby office towers more appealing to tenants and employees. It is often faster to walk to destinations along this line, and it is common to see streetcars passing carrying only about two or three riders.
The 2.5 mile First Hill Streetcar, which was funded mainly by Sound Transit, could clearly be regarded a "political streetcar line," as it certainly is not a practical streetcar line, with its circuitous route and often snail-like pace. It was promised to the voters in that part of the city in order to induce them to vote for Sound Transit's 2008 ballot measure after that agency decided that it would not be practical to construct a deep underground station there for its light rail line. What was conveniently ignored by Sound Transit was the fact that overhead wires were already in place that could have provided a more direct, more flexible, faster, more frequent and much cheaper trolley bus service through First Hill to both the Capital Hill and the Chinatown/ID light rail stations - and beyond.
5 “Trolley team” sets June 1 deadline for streetcar plan,
Stuart Eskenazi, Seattle Times, April 12, 2005, https://www.seattletimes.com/ seattle-news/ trolley-team-sets-june-1-deadline-for-streetcar-plan/ and Board of Park Commissioners Meeting Minutes,
June 9, 2005, https://www.seattle.gov/ documents/Departments/ ParksAndRecreation/ Minutes/2005/06-09-05.pdf.
6 There are still other problems with this proposal in addition to its high cost and its doubtful ridership. Among them is the possibility of endangering the magnificent, mature trees in the median strips along the south end of First Ave. For a good discussion of this strange obsession see Disconnected: Why the Seattle Connector Streetcar is a Very Bad Idea, Jim Margard, April 3, 2023, Post Alley, https://www.postalley.org/ 2023/04/03/disconnected-why-the-seattle-connector-streetcar-is-a-very-bad-idea/.
7 The main thing that it wouldn't do is to provide a physical connection between the two existing streetcar lines. But how important is this really? Although such a connection looks nice on planners' maps, it is doubtful that it would accomplish much because the South Lake Union line is so sparsely used and there is little prospect for a dramatic increase in ridership even with the connection. Yes, it would pass by the upper level entrance to the Pike Place Market, unlike the waterfront route, which would pass by the waterfront level entrance, but the small number of other major visitor destinations along the route, and its probable slow speed, would be unlikely to induce many visitors and locals to use it. The area around the upper level entrance to the market is already very walkable, as is First Ave., and the major hotels are just a short walk away.
8 Sound Transit currently projects that service would not be able to begin through this tunnel until 2039. https://www.soundtransit.org/ system-expansion/west-seattle-ballard-link-extensions/ timeline-milestones.
Moreover, it is not even certain that it will ever get built, given growing opposition and rapidly escalating costs. Sound Transit has not been able to provide any evidence that demand would exist for the huge increase in capacity that the tunnel would provide. The existing transit tunnel under Third Ave. is lightly used at only a fraction of its capacity and could easily accommodate trains coming from Bellevue, West Seattle and Ballard.
Although the argument has been made that the current tunnel wouldn't be sufficient for peak periods if the proposed branches are connected to it, if the current working-from-home trend continues, the demand for peak period commuting will grow by less than previously projected and the major share of transit trips will be for providing urban mobility throughout the day.
Moreover, it appears that the main growth in demand for commuting in the region is no longer in downtown Seattle but rather in Bellevue. That is where the where the great demand for a north-south rail service exists, but mainly for improved regional mobility, not Seattle. However, Sound Transit, in cahoots with narrow special interests, has completely neglected the until-recently existing north-south rail line through Bellevue and the rest of the Eastside and allowed it to be scrapped, despite it's having been voted the second-most popular rail project in the region! (Unfortunately, the inconvenient results of this survey, ST2 Update, First Quarter 2008 Public Involvement, pp. 20-25, Sound Transit, March 13, 2008, can no longer be found on the Sound Transit website.)
9 There is no problem with this because there is no sharp distinction between streetcars and "light rail." Rather, they are basically just variations of the same technology, and many rail transit systems are somewhat intermediate between the two, with characteristics of both the former and the latter. The main difference is that light rail systems typically have greater spacing between stations and also mostly avoid operating on streets. It is possible for both of them to run on the same tracks with some relatively simple modifications, and, in fact, it is quite common in some places.
10 See, for example: Voters derailed rail mass transit in 1970 -- and again in 2019 with Initiative 976, Joel Connelly, SeattlePI.com,
Updated Nov 27, 2019, https://www.seattlepi.com/ local/politics/article/The-voters-derailed-rail-mass-transit-in-1970-14818272.php.