A Month Before Elections, Seattle Approves Plan for First Hill Streetcar

Seattle First Hill Streetcar Map» Candidate Mike McGinn presents strongly pro-transit platform, while opponent Joe Mallahan’s interest in new capital investment is limited.

The Seattle political establishment was shocked by the failure of Mayor Greg Nickels to make it past primary elections in August. Mr. Nickels faced strong competition on both his right and left, from executive Joe Mallahan, who promoted an efficient, business-friendly platform, and from environmentalist Mike McGinn, who argued that the mayor hadn’t done enough to ready the city for a greener 21st century. The city’s inhabitants will vote again in early November to determine which of the two candidates will lead America’s 25th-largest city; their choice will be elemental in determining the municipality’s future transportation options.

At the national level, Mr. Nickels made a name for himself as a major proponent of transit investment. He campaigned relentlessly for the passage of Sound Transit 2 last fall, which provided several billion dollars of new funds for light rail expansion north to Lynnwood, east to Overlake, and south to Redondo. That said, he was a vigorous proponent of the four billion dollar Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, which is primarily an expenditure designed to improve the lives of automobile commuters.

It is increasingly apparent that Mr. McGinn, who has in the past favored cheaper bus service over rapid transit expansion, will also be a strong proponent of capital investment in mass transit if he is elected. He fought the costly and unnecessary replacement of the Viaduct with a new downtown tunnel. Mr. Mallahan, who drives almost everywhere, has provided little evidence that he feels similarly, and his strong support of the tunneling of the Viaduct, rather than its replacement with the surface-level boulevard Mr. McGinn suggests, augurs poorly for his ability to advocate for new transit solutions.

The mayoral contest is particularly relevant because of the recent decision of the Seattle City Council to pursue an agreement with regional authority Sound Transit on the First Hill Streetcar line. This project, which will be the second modern streetcar in the city (after the corridor in South Lake Union), will connect the International District downtown with First Hill and Capitol Hill, essentially providing a secondary parallel transit spine to the just-opened Link light rail line. It will be sponsored by Sound Transit, as it was one of the funded projects in Mr. Nickels’ ST2; in a complicated arrangement, the city will build and operate the line despite having limited financial involvement. When it opens in 2013, the First Hill line could be the second element of a whole network of streetcars running through the city’s core. It has yet to acquire a definitive route or an official name.

Perhaps the most admirable element of Mr. McGinn’s platform is his emphasis on preserving rights-of-way for transit; despite his support of the First Hill line, he is not focused on streetcars because he is concerned that they are simply too slow to replace a large share of car trips. He wants more rapid bus lines that travel in their own lanes. Instead of pushing for a streetcar line to West Seattle’s Queen Anne, Fremont, and Ballard neighborhoods, he wants a quick light rail line along the same route to be submitted for voter consideration in a couple of years. His platform, then, suggests a willingness to continue the investments Mr. Nickels prioritized and an excitement to go further towards making the city great.

Mr. McGinn understands that a simple streetcar line isn’t enough to ensure efficient and trustworthy public transportation options for the city’s voters, but he also has made apparent his understanding that streetcars can be powerful tools for the development of dense urban environments. His opposition to the Viaduct makes his credentials as a transit advocate all the more obvious. He would be an intelligent steward of the city’s funds and a visionary for the region’s future.

Image above: Proposed First Hill Streetcar Route, from Seattle Department of Transportation

11 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Cameron Slick

    Minneapolis finished a Streetcar Feasibility Study in 2006 that highlighted seven corridors to be replaced by trolleys. With this in mind, county planners have tried placating supporters of the Southwest LRT 3C-2 alignment, which would serve a dense part of the city at greater cost, with the possibility of streetcar service. While this would be good for the neighborhoods and development, it would hardly provide the fast travel times that LRT could provide. It’s good to see leaders like Mike McGinn understanding that streetcars are not in lieu of light rail or rapid bus, but complimenting.

  • Y’know, when you get to the point where you’re talking about “West Seattle’s Queen Anne, Fremont, and Ballard neighborhoods”, you really need to stop, take a few deep breaths, and consider the possibility that you don’t really know that much about it.

    Yes, McGinn is an opponent of the “$4 billion tunnel project”, of which $2 billion would be spent on the tunnel, and $2 billion on surface street improvements, a streetcar, parks, and seawall rebuilding. Which makes him a liar when he says, often in the next sentence, that he’s for all those surface street improvements (but against the streetcar). This is just double-talk, and not particularly clever double-talk.

    You may think this kind of talk will make him an “intelligent steward” and a “visionary”. I don’t.

  • For those interested, here is a nice comparison of Mr. McGinn’s proposal for the Viaduct project and that of the state, courtesy of Seattle Transit Blog:

    http://seattletransitblog.com/2009/08/13/the-mcginn-response/

  • Good post, but I really think it’s important to hold focus on the fact that streetcars are local-stop transit, and therefore have a different market than rapid-transit options including conventional LRT, BRT, and the various types of heavy rail. Describing First Hill streetcar as a second spine parallel to Sound Transit is a little misleading. Several bus corridors through this area are much more important than the proposed streetcar, in terms of both operating speed and likely passenger throughput.

  • Chanson

    Well, the biggest thing about the viaduct replacement is that it will benefit the city as a whole, not just auto drivers and that’s where I see his opposition as McGinn’s biggest failure. By removing the viaduct, the city will regain its waterfront and have an incredible opportunity to redevelop the land that it sits on and remove an incredible source of noise pollution from one of the city’s main assets. I don’t see this as an issue that relates to car drivers more than anyone else because without the tunnel, traffic would still have the viaduct to travel on… No one’s proposing tearing down the viaduct and not replacing it with a comparable stretch of highway, everyone is saying that there needs to be a highway along the waterfront, the biggest issue is what form that highway will be in.

    I think that the rhetoric that is often spewed out of Seattle’s political establishment is totally irresponsible and downright ridiculous. They often characterize things as only benefitting the rich and being tools of big business, which Seattleites are quite responsive to, and that’s why it works… However, when transit is totally focused on the poor and neglects the needs of the city as a whole, that’s just as good as a billion dollar bridge to nowhere (Link Light Rail I’m looking at you). The fact of the matter is that the majority of the people commuting to downtown Seattle aren’t the poor, they are middle and upper middle class professionals who live in wealthier neighborhoods and suburbs, they’re the ones who need mass transit in the Puget Sound region, and have been neglected for so long… Traffic won’t improve unless you address the transportation needs of the people who are causing the traffic, it’s pretty obvious.

    And about Mallahan, he works in an area of Bellevue, on the Eastside, that completely lacks good transit. Living out on the Eastside (in Redmond), I can tell you how impossible it is to use busses out here. The biggest problem is that while Seattle’s bus service is pretty decent, even quite good in some places, outside the city bus service is spotty and infrequent. It’s easier for me to sit in traffic than to take a bus and that’s even more true for people trying to commute FROM Seattle out here to Microsoft, T-Mobile, Nintendo, Paccar, etc…

    I DO believe that we need mass transit now in the Puget Sound Region and quickly, but we don’t need ANY mass transit, we need well planned mass transit that addresses the needs of all people in the region. If we keep using mass transit as a tool to improve the plight of the poor, the city will lose its competitive edge and its major corporations. Boeing already showed Seattle what happens when you ignore your major corporations and Seattle is a company town through and through. I’m not saying that conceding to the corporations is always right, but just because they’re corporations doesn’t mean that they don’t have a valid point sometimes…

    That’s just my 2¢.

  • Jake

    Ok I have a question about this streetcar system and the streetcar systems in America in general. I know that before most of the streetcars in the United States were torn up and replaced with buses, a good portion of them were privately owned and operated. Is this the case now with the rebirth of the streetcar in many cities? Is Portland’s streetcar privately operated/owned, Seattle’s, San Fran’s? Or do some of them have a public-private partnership. I know that, obviously, it takes cooperation with the gov’t in those cities to build a streetcar anyways for subsidies and just figuring out the route.
    Thanks. Sorry for my long-winded question.

    Jake

  • No. All streetcars in the US are publicly owned and operated. The only non-touristy passenger rail lines that are privately operated that I know of are the BNSF and UP Metra lines, which nonetheless are integrated into the publicly operated Metra system and are subsidized by the government.

  • Woody

    Jake — The history, iirc, is that many if not most of the streetcar lines were built as part of land-development schemes, early transit-oriented development where close-in suburbs were made possible by streetcars. Many operators were owned by electric utilities, where there may have been some advantages in rate regulation that encouraged using more electricity in transit or whatever. So even when they were privately owned, they were not exactly profit centers on their own. When subsidies shifted to free parking for cars, and to building more city streets, roads, and highways, streetcar transit could not survive.

    As an aside, in many cities one of the streetcar lines led to an amusement park, owned in whole or part by the streetcar company, which during the warm months provided traffic that was reverse of the commuting flow. When the streetcar lines faded from the scene, so did many of the small-city amusement parks.

  • Jake

    Why would this not work anymore? Wouldn’t some type of partnership be besy between public and private?

  • Woody

    Jake — It is working. In Portland, the major developers and property owners downtown agreed to a tax district for the areas served by streetcars to pay all or much of their cost.

    That same notion is implicit in the 42nd St tramway proposal, where the Times Square Business Improvement District and a couple of similar ones might tax some of the affected real estate to support the tramway.

    But let’s not forget that the benefits of transit can extend far, far beyond any one line. We all benefit in some certain but almost unmeasurable way when the US imports less oil from the Middle East. Likewise we all benefit from efforts to reduce pollution from greenhouse gases. Etc. So it’s fair that government support transit in the same way it has supported other infrastructure like parking, streets, roads, and highways, the canal systems, and the air transport system.

    Some transit could have a disproportionate impact on commutes but have little chance of Transit Oriented Development. The 42nd St Tramway might not stimulate much new construction. The strip is already dense with high-rise office towers and apartment buildings, with few prime sites left for redevelopment on 42nd St itself. But it would still be a good thing for the city of New York.

  • Jake

    Thanks for all the answers.
    I’m not opposed to the fact that the gov’t runs the lines at all. It’s DEFINITELY worth it all. I was just curious.
    Thanks again,

    Jake

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