Letter to Mayor Mike McGinn About a First Hill Streetcar

Veteran Metro Transit bus route designer Jack Whisner raises concerns about the city’s plans for a First Hill streetcar.

January 21, 2011 Published in the February 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Sent March 2, 2010

Mayor McGinn,
This note considers the ST2 First Hill Streetcar. Please excuse its length, but there are several aspects to this puzzle.

You may soon recommend an alignment to the Council. Last week, SDOT recommended an alignment to you (reported by the Capitol Hill blog).

Please consider seeking agreement with the Council to ask Sound Transit (ST) to cancel and substitute. Seattle could ask that the same ST2 funds be used for substitute capital and service improvements to the electric trolleybus network.

ST owes Seattle the most First Hill transit mobility we can get for its ST2 funds (e.g., about $132 million in capital and $5.2 million per year in service subsidy). The First Hill streetcar is clearly a risky and suboptimal transit investment. There is also no doubt streetcars are neat and many want them. But their cost and effectiveness are key questions, especially in hilly urban centers.

Though it may be afforded for the funds available, there may be costs and risks not yet fully assessed. Please consider the following. They will impact its feasibility.

  1. Will the Pioneer Square loop impact the area ways under South Jackson Street? Will it be costly to reconstruct that street?
  2. Will the Pioneer Square loop, by extending through the intersections of South Jackson Street with 2nd Avenue Extension South and 4th Avenue South, reduce the transit capacity of those intersections? The transit capacity of downtown Seattle is limited and should be carefully preserved until Link is extended to Northgate and NE 45th Street in about 2020, allowing north Seattle bus routes to be restructured. The SR-99 deep bore construction will disrupt transit and downtown traffic during the next several years.
  3. Will either the Pioneer Square or International District turn around loops reduce the transit capacity of 5th Avenue South and South Jackson Street used by several key transit flows (e.g., all electric trolleybus deadhead routes, routes 7, 14, and 36, I-90 routes, and SR-520 routes)?
  4. If the First Hill streetcar will stop in the center lanes of South Jackson Street, that would seem to suggest that South Jackson Street will be restriped to provide the streetcar platforms. It now has five lanes between 8th and 12th avenues South and four lanes with parallel parking between 5th and 8th avenues South. Except at Maynard Avenue South, buses stop in-lane. Will the number of lanes be reduced? Will the trolleybus routes, that carry many more riders than the streetcar is forecasted to attract, be slowed by the reconfiguration of South Jackson Street? What of any signal priority provided the streetcar for its outbound left turn to 14th Avenue South from South Jackson Street? Will its green time slow Rainier Avenue South traffic and the other transit routes?
  5. How much will transit service be disrupted by construction of the track, stations, and new overhead? When the SLU line was constructed, Westlake and Terry avenues were relatively empty streets. In the case of the First Hill line, South Jackson Street and Broadway are critical arterials with significant traffic and transit volumes. How much will be spent moving the trolleybus overhead back and forth during construction?
  6. Even if the streetcars have batteries to travel through the complex electric trolleybus intersections at 5th and 12th avenues South and at Jefferson, Madison, Union, Pine, and John streets, how much disruption will be there be to transit flow? Will more riders be slowed than are attracted to the slow and indirect streetcar? Here is a link to the SDOT report on the difficulties of the modal interface.

The ST2 funds to be devoted to the First Hill streetcar are substantial and have high opportunity cost. They are not third party funds from Mars. Seattle represents about 90 percent of the ST West subarea population (Washington State OFM figures, April 2009). The same taxpayers support Seattle, the West subarea of ST, and the West subarea of Metro; the funds pass through different governments.

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Please consider an alternative investment, devoted more to service frequency and less to capital. The electric trolleybus overhead exists today to operate between Pioneer Square and East Aloha Street via South Jackson Street and Broadway. But a faster and more direct connection between First Hill and the transit tunnel stations could be provided with new trolleybus overhead on Yesler Way. Both SDOT and Metro have studied this new overhead. It was included in the AWV rapid trolley scenarios. In the short term, the Yesler overhead could be used by routes 3-4 for a much more reliable path across I-5 that would serve the front doors of Harborview and Yesler Terrace. After the Capitol Hill Link station opens in 2016, routes 49 or 43 or both could be revised to serve Broadway, Madison Street, 9th Avenue, and Yesler Way, with a new turn around loop in Pioneer Square. This alignment would provide faster and more direct service to Yesler Terrace, Harborview, Virginia Mason, and Swedish than the proposed streetcar alignment. The path via Yesler Way is more direct. It uses a hill the trolleybus can climb but that a streetcar cannot. Yesler Way crosses I-5 via a bridge and is free of interchange congestion, unlike Union, Seneca, Spring, Madison, Marion, and James streets. End to end, the running time would be about two minutes faster than the streetcar alignment. It would provide faster and more direct service to Yesler Terrace, Harborview, and Virginia Mason. It would go directly over the Madison Street site of the Link station abandoned by ST. That abandonment is the reason there is a streetcar debate at all. It would require a relatively modest capital investment, leaving the bulk of the ST2 funds to be converted to a flow of service subsidy and more frequent service. The trolleybus alternative would faster, more direct, and more frequent. That would more than make up for the cache of a streetcar. Instead of an indirect streetcar every 10 minutes, we could have a more direct electric trolleybus about every five minutes. Seattle would help decide how well it flows through traffic. Here is a link to the AWV rapid trolley portfolio.

Seattle has the power to treat the trolleybus as it would treat a streetcar and provide in-lane stops, signal priority, faster fare collection, and longer stop spacing. A renewed fleet would probably be similar to that of Vancouver with low floors, wider aisles, and regenerative braking.

Here is a link to the 2007 ST study recommending the streetcar. Note that it did not spend equal amounts of funds on the two modes nor study the Yesler Way overhead. The objective choice is between a more frequent electric trolleybus service relying on existing and improved infrastructure v. a less frequent and more indirect streetcar. The study reads as if ST had an answer in mind before they began.

From a strategic viewpoint, the Nickels-Drago streetcar approach is flawed for several reasons.

  1. The lines are too short; they do not provide enough pedestrian advantage. The SLU line is only 1.3 miles. The First Hill line is only two miles. In Portland, their streetcar extends to Portland State and through downtown. In Seattle, the SLU line is short of both the University District and downtown. The First Hill line does not extend to north Capitol Hill, let alone the University District, as current Route 49 does or the 1939 Broadway streetcar did. Reasonable lines would be long enough to completely replace the underlying bus routes. Of course, long lines have the significant issue of high cost, about $30 to 50 million per mile.
  2. The SLU streetcar stops tend to be too close together. They are aiming for local circulation trips that would be captured by bus routes any way. If we are to spend $50 million per mile on a transit mode, it should be a high ridership line and not a local circulation line. Our streetcar model should be Toronto, not Portland. Then they would begin to approach the MAX-type LRT line you discussed during the campaign.
  3. Most of the Nickels-Drago streetcar lines are redundant to electric trolleybus lines. If mitigating global warming is important, and it is, new streetcar lines should replace diesel bus lines, not electric trolleybus lines. Consider the existing network of electric trolleybus overhead. It is most dense in downtown, First Hill, and Capitol Hill. These are not the markets new separate electric traction modes should be provided, especially if they will further slow existing service. It would make more sense to add key links to the electric trolleybus overhead (e.g., Yesler Way, Route 11 to Madison Park, and Route 48 on 23rd Avenue). Here is an SDOT link to the current network.
  4. Two key differences from Portland: Seattle has steep hills; Seattle retained its electric trolleybus network. The very name “First Hill Connector” implies that the streetcar is an awkward modal choice. In the 1930s streetcar network, the lines on Yesler Way, James Street, and Madison Street were cable cars, as they are too steep for streetcars. There was a streetcar on South Jackson Street, but it did not go to First and Capitol Hills. The streetcar must go through the topographical saddle point of 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street. The same intersection needed by transit, traffic, and bicycles. SDOT has recommended using 14th Avenue South for the streetcar alignment between South Jackson Street and Yesler Way. The pretzel shape to thealignment is a sign of indirectness and slower travel times. Here is an SDOT link to the 1933 streetcar network showing the cable cars mentioned above.
  5. If we cannot afford the Central Line on 1st Avenue, will we have two short streetcar lines with two maintenance bases? How smart is that? Metro has a trolleybus base with some capacity for expansion. Seattle’s fiscal situation seems to indicate that the First Avenue line will not be afforded in the near future. SDOT may recommend battery operation through significant intersections with complicated electric trolleybus overhead. This implies that the streetcars on the SLU and First Hill lines will be different.
  6. If transportation and transit funds are scarce, and they are, should they not be used as cost-effectively as possible? Seattle will soon have to fund reconstruction of the seawall, two phases of the Mercer Street project, a new Magnolia Bridge, a second round of pavement management, and will consider a west side LRT line and a significant expansion of sidewalks to arterials that lack them. The Metro operating budget is at risk. Service cuts are being made in 2010 and 2011 with 62 percent coming from the West subarea (e.g., Seattle, Shoreline, and Lake Forest Park).

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Politically, some say: we have to implement the First Hill line, as it was approved by the voters in November 2008 as part of ST2. Please do not blame the voters; they faced an all-or-nothing choice and may have thought extending Link to Northgate was worth including a less than perfect project elsewhere. We expect Seattle and the ST Board to make wise decisions, even if they have to go back on some initial ones, if costs or benefits are different than expected. Instead, consider that ST owes Seattle the most First Hill transit mobility for its funding as we can obtain.

There is plenty of precedence for a change. There were several projects in the 1996 ballot measure (Sound Move) that were not implemented. Some were changed by a two-thirds vote of the ST Board. Below is a partial list:

  1. Kirkland center access ramp at NE 85th Street proved too costly and was redeployed to several other capital projects (e.g., Totem Lake Transit Center, Kirkland Transit Center, NE 85th Street sidewalks, NE 128th Street center access ramps and pedestrian walkway)
  2. The I-90 center roadway was not converted to a two-way busway.
  3. Several bus routes were changed or deleted in all three counties.
  4. Link stations were NOT provided at NE 45th Street, First Hill, South Graham Street, and South 200th Street.
  5. North Sounder was one-way instead of two-way, implemented later, and provides fewer trips.

Consider how other cities have negotiated with ST over projects. In Sound Move, Tacoma took a decade to decide how the Sounder tracks would cross Pacific Street; Kirkland negotiated a change to the investments listed above; Tukwila and ST argued over the alignment in that city. In ST2, Bellevue is even now in tough negotiations with ST over its Link alignments between I-90 and Overlake Hospital via south and downtown Bellevue. Seattle can be just as assertive. We need not stick to the mistakes of the ST Board.

Consider ST2 in our subarea. You may want to lobby for other changes. Should the alignment and stations in Shoreline and Mountlake Terrace be in the I-5 envelope? Is that good for land use?

Thank you for considering this note.

Jack Whisner

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