by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
80,000. That is the number of people the Puget Sound Regional Council estimates will live in the Center City area of Seattle alone by the year 2030. The PSRC also expects another 280,000 commuters to join them every day as the number of jobs in the region grows steadily over the next two decades.
The Seattle Department of Transportation’s updated Transit Master Plan has a lot of ideas and goals, but none of them involve magically expanding the available geography of the Center City’s narrow corridors. Be it bike, rail, or bus, the TMS is focused on high-capacity alternatives to single-passenger cars. As the budget opens up for new miles of track, one of the primary goals is to revive Seattle’s reliance on the streetcar.
Currently, Seattle only has the use of one active streetcar, the South Lake Union Streetcar (colloquially referred to as the trolley or crudely as the S.L.U.T.). Stretching from the edge of the Central Business District downtown to the dense employment region of Eastlake, the performance of the trolley has exceeded the expectations of many in Seattle’s transit professional and political communities. Coming off the lukewarm reception of things like the Seattle Monorail, many didn’t imagine commuters would take to the trolley. Yet, since its activation in 2007, the line has seen ridership nearly double, serving approximately 3,000 riders per weekday.
City Councilmember Richard Conlin was a self-described “skeptic” when it came to rail in Seattle back in 2007. Speaking on Feb. 6 at the first Transit Master Plan public meeting in, Conlin described a visit to Portland, Ore. that changed his mind. Portland has a much more extensive streetcar system than Seattle at this time, stretching 3.9 miles north to south with expansions in the works today. As of the 2012 Quarterly Streetcar Performance Report by Portland’s TriMet district management, the city’s streetcar sees an average of 11,200 riders daily. Impressed by TriMet’s success, Councilmember Conlin became one of the first people in Seattle City government to be an outspoken supporter of a comprehensive streetcar system here.
Now, the First Hill Streetcar is on schedule to open in 2014, stretching from Yesler Terrace to the north end of Broadway. SDOT sees an opportunity to connect the FHS to the South Lake Union Streetcar, creating the backbone of a comprehensive trolley system through some of Seattle’s most dense residential and employment districts. This year, SDOT will gather data and create proposals for this unified line through the Connector Study.
The Connector Study examines the logistics, impact, and cost of fusing the two streetcar lines with a link between South Jackson Street and the Westlake area. This more local line would intersect at several points with the more long-distance Light Rail system, stretching from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport all the way to Northgate.
Another component of the Connector Study is determining the potential for high-capacity transit between downtown and the northwest region of Seattle, comprising all of Ballard and Fremont, and potentially going as far north as Phinney Ridge. There are no concrete plans to bring rail of any sort to that area at this time, but City officials have expressed concern for the growing needs of those communities.
Tony Mazzella of the SDOT Connector Study told attendees of the Transit Master Plan open house on Feb. 6, “We are a constrained city, physically,” and that single-passenger cars are “out of the question.” For now, it’s not a matter of if northwest Seattle will receive more high-capacity transit options, but rather what kind the region will see. Because of differences in density and geography, it is unlikely that a plan to Ballard and beyond will reflect the designs of Capitol Hill and the University District. The solution, according to transit officials and Mayor McGinn, may be as simple as adding more bus service and modifying existing busing for greater efficiency.
Regardless of how high-capacity transit develops in Seattle’s near future, there is consensus within the city government about the need to act quickly.
“The point of having a Master Plan is not to have it on the shelf,” said SDOT Director Peter Hahn, “but to move forward.” Connector Study manager Tony Mazzella and Mayor McGinn echoed this sentiment in their own statements. Getting the Transit Master Plan shovel-ready is more than a matter of determination, though. The City needs to secure additional funding over the next 20 years to keep the wheels on the double-decker bus going ’round. Combined with local funds, Seattle will need greater participation at the State and Federal levels to meet its goals for 2030.