Seattle Magazine: Will Seattle’s vintage streetcars make a triumphant return to the waterfront?

All Aboard? The Strange Case of the Seattle Waterfront Trolley

Seattle’s central waterfront is getting a huge, decade-long face-lift: a new tunnel for State Route 99, a new ferry dock, a new seawall, pedestrian promenades, maybe even a mist machine to remind summer visitors that they’re in Seattle. But so far, there’s no sign of those antique streetcars that rumbled down Alaskan Way in the 1980s and ’90s, captivating so many Seattle visitors.

James Corner Field Operations, the New York City–based firm designing the waterfront, did not include the George Benson streetcars in its plan last July, but earlier this year, the city commissioned a study to see if they could fit in. Recommendations are expected this month.

The reconsideration tempts the dreamer. Fans of the streetcar hope that the power of history and some real economic and transit benefits will prevail to resurrect this distinct transportation option.

…It does appear that mahogany has no role in Seattle decision makers’ love affair with modern streetcars. Sound Transit’s First Hill streetcar, to be launched in 2014, will complement a Westlake-to-South Lake Union service, which opened in 2007, likewise with sterile, modern cars heavy on the polymers. There’s talk of a “central” streetcar to connect those two services, probably along First Avenue, but the current city-sponsored study “is only looking at transit choices on Alaskan Way,” says city spokesperson Rick Sheridan.

…In its last year, the Benson streetcars recovered about 16 percent of their expenses through fares, but some of those expenses, advocates point out, could be cut next time around. …New fare-payment technologies could eliminate the conductor’s role, trimming labor costs. Or volunteers could contribute some labor… According to the American Public Transportation Association, many heritage streetcar operations already rely on volunteers.

In public transit, which is heavily subsidized, a 16 percent “farebox recovery” is not necessarily low. Indeed, vintage streetcars can be healthy revenue generators, especially when compared to buses. The boxy old Benson vehicles drew about 22 percent more riders (in 2004) than Metro’s replacement bus two years later, notwithstanding the latter’s nostalgic paint job.

…The current review of the Benson line isn’t the first. A 2011 study performed for the Seahawks, Sounders and Mariners found that the Benson line could be reactivated for between $10.3 million and $12.7 million, depending on its northern and southern termini. The study did not include costs for minor improvements to accessibility for disabled travelers, and did not foresee replacing tracks that have since been removed to dismantle the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Surprisingly, given who funded the study, the analysis favored a couple of different route alignments for a restored Benson, but rejected one that would serve CenturyLink and Safeco fields.

Referencing the defunct Benson route’s connections to the Pier 52 ferry dock, the First Hill streetcar, the Chinatown–International District’s light rail station and King Street Station, former Metro chief Tom Gibbs, who has championed the restoration, describes the route “as a fairly major gap today in the regional transportation plan.” To which, he adds, “You could put all [five] cars back on the street for less than it would cost to buy one new one.”

The Benson streetcar’s absence leaves a blank slate for myriad speculative route configurations, including some not in the 2011 study. In 2012, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat proposed sending a revived Benson streetcar past both stadiums and the newly planned basketball arena, with a southern terminus near Starbucks’ Utah Avenue headquarters. And how about stretching Westneat’s route past Starbucks to connect with light rail at its South Lander station? And what about to the north? In 2005, the Port of Seattle proposed bringing the line up a little past Terminal 86. Paige Miller, then a port commissioner who championed that possibility, says the line could have gone even farther north, through Interbay. Not far north of that looms transit-challenged Ballard.

The central question, however, is not routing, but the value Seattle’s decision makers place on nostalgia. Nostalgia may be quirky, to use Sacharoff’s term, but it draws a crowd. “We would pack ’em in during the summer months,” he says. And, in this case, nostalgia’s coincidence with transit needs along a revived waterfront, and to and from major sports venues, may be enough to tempt the realistic planner, too.