Update from Tom Gibbs: Committee formed to Save Our Streetcar

From Tom Gibbs:
Hello everyone,

And, a belated Happy New Year!

Much to tell.

First, let me give you a ‘Heads Up’ regarding an article that will probably appear on-line in the Puget Sound Business Journal. Marc Stiles, staff writer for the PSBJ, attended a City Council meeting yesterday where the topic of the Benson Trolleys came up. Council member Sally Bagshaw asked City staff if planning for re-activating the Waterfront Streetcars was underway and was told that it is. Marc wanted more information so Sally referred him to me. I just finished a phone interview with him where I mentioned the large number of people who are interested in the vintage cars. He wanted to see some of the letters you sent me so I forwarded him a file of some of them. Thus, you might see your name in the article.

Next, late last year I was advised that the Loop Trolley organization in St. Louis wanted to lease the Benson cars. You will remember that last summer we were successful in stopping them from purchasing the cars so the lease idea was advanced. While the County does not want to see the trolleys leave the area, the lease was of some interest because of significant cost factors. The Federal Transit Administration had warned Metro Transit that a large grant ($250K) awarded to Metro for refurbishing the Benson cars might have to be repaid since the cars are no longer in service. Further, the County is incurring an annual cost of $70K for storing the cars. And, as a senior County official told me – ‘With large service cuts imminent those costs are unacceptable’. Leasing the streetcars to St. Louis would void the FTA threat and, of course, eliminate the storage costs. I was asked to help find alternative storage facilities and to support an early decision on the use of the cars on the waterfront. Two organizations have been approached to see if they could accommodate the cars on a temporary basis. I expect responses soon but more options would be advisable. So, if any of you are aware of facilities that could be approached please let me know. Metro Transit has offered to pay one-half of the cost to move the cars.

To the County’s great credit, the St. Louis organization was just advised that as long as Seattle is considering re-activating the Benson cars on the waterfront, no lease discussions were appropriate. The Loop Trolley staff will be waiting for a decision by the City and could re-assert their interest in a lease if re-starting the Waterfront Streetcar is not embraced by the City.

I mentioned in my October message that I had been asked to assemble a ‘Blue Ribbon Committee’ of well-known community leaders who would support the use of the Benson Trolleys on the waterfront. The current list of those who have agreed to participate is attached along with a ‘purpose statement’ that we adopted in mid-December.

Finally – my ongoing discussions with senior City staff continue to make me optimistic that our efforts will be successful. Of course, it will still be necessary to make our case to the Mayor and Council but I believe they will be attentive and responsive.




It shall be the purpose of this Committee to support the re-activation of the George Benson Waterfront Streetcars by:

  • Supporting the following goal for transportation along the new waterfront park; “Use vehicles that will be attractive to riders, have historical significance and be an integrating force for the many waterfront attractions.”
  • Urging the City of Seattle to expand the First Hill Streetcar maintenance base to accommodate the Benson Trolleys.
  • Helping to raise funds for the proper storage and refurbishing of the vintage streetcars.
  • Promoting the use of volunteer labor to assist in the restoration of the vintage streetcars.
  • Speaking out in support of these results at public forums and with the print and broadcast media.

Members as of December 14, 2012

  • Dan Evans
  • Frank Shrontz
  • Jim Ellis
  • Phyllis Lamphere
  • Sally Jewell
  • Tomio Moriguchi
  • Aubrey Davis
  • Hal Griffith
  • Bob Gogerty
  • Bill Chapman
  • Tom Gibbs

Mayoral candidate Peter Steinbrueck supports restoring Waterfront Streetcar

On Facebook, Peter Steinbrueck was reacting to today’s Seattle Times story on linking the Pike Place Market to the waterfront. In response to our comment

Once visitors reach the waterfront, how will they get around? We should be restoring the Waterfront Streetcar as part of this project.

Peter posted:

I’m all for it Charlie! The waterfront concept plan to be successful, must be to be well served by transit, and bringing back a dedicated ROW for frequent transit service and the George Benson historic Street Car is the way!

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.

Latest News, October 30, 2012

The latest update from Tom Gibbs.

Hi again everyone,

Some very good news:

  • On 10/13 at the invitation of Lloyd Flem, Executive Director of All Aboard Washington (AAWA), I presented the Benson Trolley story to the Board of the Association. The Board voted unanimously to support our efforts and agreed to be listed as such. My thanks to Lloyd for his personal support.
  • On 10/15 Marshall Foster, the City’s Director of Planning, and I made presentations to the residents of Skyline at First Hill. Marshall did his usual fine job of describing the plans for the new Waterfront Park and mentioned that the City planned to study the addition of streetcars on the new Alaskan Way as one option for providing transportation in the new park. Small buses will be evaluated as well. Marshall commented that ‘no one wants buses’. The study of streetcars is a huge change from the initial position of the consultant retained by the City, James Corner, who was dismissive of streetcars at the first two public meetings on the park. The Benson Trolley story was well received by the Skyline residents with several folks offering to help with our effort.
  • At a meeting with Marshall and the SDOT engineers working on the waterfront park plan, I was shown the alignment they will use to evaluate the use of streetcars in the new park. The existing Waterfront Streetcar single track from Pier 70 to the Marriott Hotel will be put in service but from that point southward a 2-track operation will be used down to Yesler where the cars will be turned into Pioneer Square and an eventual connection with the new First Hill tracks on S. Jackson Street via either 1st Avenue S. or via Occidental Avenue. Streetcars can’t be used south of Yesler on Alaskan Way because of the reversible lanes being planned in front of the ferry terminal. By the middle of next year, the City wants to make a decision on the vehicles to be used on the waterfront. I hope to be involved in the planning and the decision.
  • During the above meeting it was suggested to me that I should try to assemble a ‘steering committee’ of folks well known in the city to help obtain volunteer labor and funds to re-furbish the vintage cars. To that end I have commitments from Dan Evans, Frank Shrontz, Phyllis Lamphere, Tomio Moriguchi and Aubrey Davis to work with me on this effort. A few more well-known people have been asked to help but haven’t responded yet. No one has turned me down. I plan on convening the committee in early December to launch our program.

My inspection of tram systems in Budapest, Vienna, Nuremberg and Prague was very educational and fun. If only our elected officials in the 30’s had the vision to keep the Seattle streetcars in service the city would be a very different and much more people oriented community.


Update from Tom

Hi everyone,

A couple of items to report:

  • During the past several weeks I’ve been discussing another issue with members of the City Council and during each meeting the councilmember brought up the Benson Trolleys and re-affirmed his/her support.  I believe this is the result of all the e-mails and letters they’ve received showing the broad public support for the vintage cars. Many thanks for your efforts.
  • On October 12th  I will be meeting with members of the Waterfront Park planning staff to discuss the study of alternative transportation modes on the waterfront.  As I reported earlier, the City will look at small rubber tired vehicles and streetcars.
  • On October 15th, Marshall Foster, the City’s Planning Director, and I will discuss plans for the new waterfront park and the possible use of the Benson Trolleys to the residents at Skyline at First Hill.
  • I’ve developed some data that shows that all five Benson Trolleys can be re-activated and put in service for less money than the cost of one modern streetcar!!  The re-activation work would include re-winding motors to operate at higher voltage, checking and modifying the cars’ braking system (if needed) and restoring the second door on each car to permit operation on a 2-track line.
  • Between now and early October I’ll be ‘investigating’ streetcars in Budapest, Vienna and Prague.

Regards to all,

Former city planning director: “The waterfront trolley deserves a more serious review”

There are some very interesting comments being posted in response to today’s Crosscut article, including this from Ray Gastil, the former planning director for Seattle and Manhattan.

“The waterfront trolley deserves a more serious review, and it is great that this article was written to help spur that. My recollection was that Seattle city government felt that the waterfront trolley was effectively the wrong message about trolleys — that it sent the message that they were for tourism and not for a contemporary urban system, and it was important that the latter message be conveyed. I sympathize with that positiion, and also feel that if and when a First Avenue trolley could be built, it is important, and it would in some ways make the waterfront trolley redundant.

“But if you are serious about moving people up and down the waterfrtont, Seattle’s waterfront is long, and there’s not that much to do, and in inclement weather it is long and cold. We need some way to move people, and we need some way to connect Pioneer Square to the great stuff at the other end. Its greatest problem is that a streetcar line will interfere with the flexibility of the newly opened waterfront. Yet done right, it could help give it a plausible idenity. So…time for a serious rehearing.

“And if there are no other good options for moving people on the waterfront besides pedicabs, welll…

“Ray Gastil”

Latest news on Seattle Streetcar

Hello All,

Some notes on recent activities regarding the Benson Streetcars:

  • Met County Councilmember Larry Phillips to review our position on re-activating the Benson Trolleys to provide N/S transportation in the new Waterfront Park. Pointed out that the trolleys would be part of Seattle’s streetcar network and not a drain on Metro Transit resources. Larry is a strong supporter of streetcars having led the effort to get Sound Transit to fund the First Hill line. He believes the Benson Trolleys should be retained and wants to be counted as an advocate. He arranged for me to meet with Larry Gossett, the Council Chair.
  • With Larry, I emphasized the importance to retaining the Benson Trolleys at least until the City makes a decision on the mode of transportation to be used in the Waterfront Park. He offered to have the Council staff review the URS re-activation report and prepare a briefing document for his use with the rest of the Council. It is likely that I will be asked to assist in that effort. Larry mentioned that he and the other Council members have each received over 100 letters and e-mails supporting the retention of the trolleys. He said when that happens it gets their attention.
  • Had a good meeting with Kevin Desmond, Metro Transit GM. Kevin indicated that St. Louis hasn’t come back with an offer to buy the Benson Trolleys but said another organization is looking at them. He suggested that it would be prudent to keep the cars until the City makes a decision on its transportation needs on the waterfront.
  • Participated in a panel discussion on the Waterfront Park and the Benson Trolleys at the Mirabella retirement community. Dr. Leo Sreebny, hosted the event which attracted about 150 attendees. Again, as he always does, Marshall Foster, the City’s Director of Planning, painted an excellent picture of what the proposed park can be. He mentioned that the transportation needs of the park will be met with either streetcars or small busses. He showed a picture of a Benson trolley and said that he has yet to find anyone who doesn’t want the trolleys re-activated on the waterfront. I described how George Benson started the Waterfront Streetcar line, how successful it was and why it was de-activated. I found some excellent images of the vintage cars and presented them to the group along with the pros and cons associated with them. Advantages that stand out are; (1) all 5 vintage cars can be refitted for operation on a 2-track line with re-wound motors for less money than the cost of one modern car, (2) a Benson trolley has a larger seating capacity (43) than a modern SLU car (30) and that with raised platforms the vintage cars are ADA compliant.

In my note on July 15th I mentioned a newly formed non-profit organization that will support governmental efforts to create the Waterfront Park and urged everyone to join. The address I provided was incorrect. It is ‘friendsofseattlewaterfront.org’.

If you haven’t already done so, please write our City and County council members. As we have seen already, numbers count. Ask the County Council to preserve the option of using the Benson Streetcars on the waterfront and ask the City Council to make sure that the new park includes a streetcar line.

Thanks for all your support and effort.


Waterfront Park and the Benson Streetcars

Hello all,

On July 9th I participated in a panel discussion at Horizon House where the City’s planning director, Marshall Foster, provided a preview of the material presented at the Seattle Center on Thursday. The County Executive’s transportation policy advisor and two engineers from SDOT were in attendance, also. Marshall painted an exciting picture of what the waterfront can become when the viaduct comes down. He stated that as the design process advances, two modes of transportation along the waterfront will be studied one of which will be a streetcar line! This is very good news but it means that we will need to be vigilant to make sure the comparison between the alternatives is done objectively and with serious consideration of the historical significance of the Benson cars.

Early in the discussion, the County representative stated clearly that the Benson Trolley cars are not for sale and that the County wants to find a way to make sure the cars are available for use in Seattle. GREAT NEWS!! However, Metro Transit is concerned that the roof of the building housing the vintage cars is vulnerable to collapse from a heavy snow load and therefore the County is hopeful that someone will step forward with an offer to move the cars to a safer location.

At the July 13th community forum at Seattle Center, James Corner – the waterfront park planner – presented a series of renderings that depicted development opportunities along the waterfront. The future waterfront will be an exciting people oriented destination if his vision can be realized and we meet the funding challenge. Corner mentioned, almost in passing, that SDOT is looking at transportation alternatives and showed a slide with multiple vehicles including a Benson trolley. He made no mention of the trolley, however.

In the hall, the park planning staff displayed a number of ‘boards’ where attendees could ‘vote’ to show their preference for various elements of the park. One board asked for preferences regarding transportation alternatives one of which was streetcars, The vehicle shown was a modern car. Nevertheless, that alternative received far more votes than any other with a preponderance of the handwritten comments in support of the Benson streetcars. Many of you were present and your presence was noted by senior members of the park planning team. Thank you for that. One official noted that, “You’ve definitely got the attention of City Hall”.

The Waterfront Advisory Committee co-chairs, Charley Royer and Maggie Walker, announced the formation of a non-profit organization to allow folks to be involved in the campaigns to raise funds for the waterfront improvements. We should all become members so that we can make our voices heard. The organization is known as “Friends of the Seattle Waterfront”.

Tom Gibbs

Joe McDermott: “put these streetcars to good use”


Thank you for sharing your concerns with me.

I certainly understand that the streetcars hold a special place in the hearts of many in Seattle and beyond. I myself have fond memories of trolley rides along the waterfront. Formerly, the streetcar line was operated and funded by the City of Seattle. However, currently these unused streetcars are being housed by King County Metro.

The County has not made any decisions about what will happen to the streetcars. I would love to find a local buyer and keep the streetcars in the here in Seattle. At the same time, continuing to house the idle streetcars takes much needed dollars away from our King County’s transit system. I believe it would be in the best interest of King County residents to consider any offer that might put these streetcars to good use.

Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this. I would encourage you to contact the City of Seattle to learn of any possible City plans for the antique streetcars.

Please keep in touch,


Joe McDermott
King County Councilmember, District 8