The SunBreak: “Waterfront Streetcar Suffers Still From City Leaders’ Malign Neglect”

From “Waterfront Streetcar Suffers Still From City Leaders’ Malign Neglect”

by Michael van Baker on November 14, 2012

…This spring, it was not trumpeted in the news that a section of the track was ripped out as part of the deep-bore tunnel’s construction.

Neither did anyone in city leadership press forward with the results of a 2011 study (pdf), paid for by organizations in the stadium district, that found reactivation of the Waterfront Streetcar line could cost as little as $10 to $13 million. (For comparison, new streetcar lines in Seattle are estimated to cost some $48-to-$50-million per mile.)

As Seattle Transit Blog explained, it wasn’t just that the Waterfront Streetcar line could link up with the First Hill Streetcar line under construction currently. The maintenance barn problem could be solved by having them share space in the First Hill Streetcar barn. They even shared the same track gauge, so that with an upgrade to a common electrical system, the Waterfront Streetcars could tool right into the barn on existing tracks. (The major incompatibility between the historic Waterfront streetcars and new versions is that the Waterfront streetcars are high-boarders, rather than street-level–the whole Waterfront line has raised platforms because of this.)

If the city acted now (this was 2011), the study noted, the Waterfront Streetcar line would be operational by 2013, and help to mitigate tunnel construction impacts on traffic and businesses. It is not clear why this crushingly obvious plan was not executed.

The city and James Corner Field Operations are working together on a redesign of the central waterfront, and they trade off on who, exactly, is insisting that any waterfront streetcar line run not down the waterfront but on First Avenue instead. First Avenue is not where the Bell Street Pier is, where some 30 percent of cruise ship traffic departs. Nor is there likely to be any expensive uphill transportation, and the grade to First Avenue is significant.

The reason for proposing to spend four times as much on a new First Avenue configuration may instead be that the deep-bore tunnel construction needs the real estate the old line uses. So the temporary requirements of a construction project may be dictating long-term transit planning. It is not too late to do the reasonable and cost-effective thing. The historic streetcars are still in excellent condition. And with voters overwhelmingly approving funding for the $290-million Elliott Bay Seawall project, the future of the waterfront is still very much a live topic.