The Bigger Picture:
by Victor Chovil
- The Capitol Hill Times -
A few years ago 10th Avenue East near Roanoke was torn up for repaving. When the Seattle Department of Transportation removed the blacktop, they exposed a set of steel tracks resting under the surface that had been unused for decades. Until the 1940s these tracks carried streetcar Line 9 – one of many that covered the city. The old Line 9 began its journey downtown, up Pine Street, turning north on Broadway and continuing along 10th Avenue North before heading over the University Bridge and terminating at Northeast 45th Street.
Like many others, Line 9 was replaced long ago with rubber tire buses, and is mirrored almost exactly today by Metro. Bus routes 10, 11 and 12 also used to run under the same number on steel tracks, all terminating downtown to join other lines to Ballard, West Seattle and the Rainier Valley. Old maps in the Seattle room at The Seattle Public Library’s Central Library show the extensive system that this city once had with cable cars climbing the steep hills to connect nearly every neighborhood with rails.
Today, Metro is one of the largest and busiest bus operators in the country, but they can’t seem to keep the number 8 from running at a snail’s pace along Denny Way. Walking up the hill is exhausting but can be significantly faster than the bus during rush hour. Grassroots groups are trying to build support for a much-needed alternative for Denny Way, anything from a gondola to a light rail tunnel, hoping to fix a failing bus system that was at one time considered more modern and reliable.
Whether or not you believe it was a conspiracy orchestrated by oil companies or a legitimately forward-thinking decision, Seattle wasn’t alone in ditching its streetcars. In New York City, the subway connects the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan to Midtown with ease, but traveling from Queens to Brooklyn can take ages. Buses slog along doing the job of old streetcars, which defined life in Brooklyn so much that they inspired the name of their baseball team, the Trolley Dodgers, a common nickname given to Brooklynites who couldn’t cross an intersection without avoiding a streetcar. Today Brooklyn’s old streetcars are decaying in a heap, and the borough is almost completely disconnected from Queens as a result.
Like Los Angeles, St Louis or Detroit, Seattle is one of many cities in America with inadequate public transportation systems, which have only gotten worse with time. Also like all of these cities, Seattle is joining 30 others in planning new streetcar systems to rebuild a fraction of what they once had. The universal goal is to encourage development and take advantage of federal grants that provide preferential treatment to capital projects for inner-city transit.
Our turn comes next year when the First Hill streetcar opens. The new line will connect Pioneer Square to Broadway via First Hill, nearly every segment of which will follow a line that exists on historic cable car maps. The line was a consolation prize to First Hill paid by Sound Transit after the neighborhood’s underground station was cut from University Link due to cost-benefit constraints. It’s part of a larger citywide plan that includes extensions to Fremont, Ballard, Eastlake and the University District, all connected to the First Hill line by extending the existing SLU line along 1st Avenue.
While the destruction of the old streetcar system might seem regrettable today, the construction of a new one is equally controversial. The city is struggling to fund the operation of its buses but seems to think that voters are willing to foot the bill for millions of dollars of streetcars that may or may not be faster than buses. The advantages are sure to benefit residents in neighborhoods that already have access to the best transit service in the city. Meanwhile, Metro is threatening cuts that will, essentially, gut service to the city’s fringe neighborhoods.
Part of the problem is the alphabet soup of transit agencies in the region, each with its own set of priorities. Another is that grants for capital funding are plentiful while operating funds from sales taxes are volatile at best. Still, advocates for streetcars in Seattle and elsewhere argue that efficiency gains and increases in density along the line mean that it will pay for itself in the long run. Modern streetcars have proven to attract more riders than the bus lines that they replaced, but have not consistently proven to be cheaper to operate.
In this city, there are two distinct though complementary plans for public transportation: the Seattle Transit Master Plan and the Sound Transit Long-Range Plan. The city has chosen streetcars as a major component to improve mobility and will soon likely seek a vote to fund at least part of the plan. Voters will have to decide if the city should build the system together or if stakeholders (i.e. property owners) should play a bigger part in construction as they did in South Lake Union.