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Puget Sound Business Journal: Could Seattle resurrect the George Benson waterfront trolley?

A quirky part of Seattle’s not-so-distant past could come back to life in the form of the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line.

Some prominent citizens are backing the plan, and city officials are interested.

“It is something we have been thinking about,” Peter Hahn, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, said Monday. Officials will have more information this spring about whether or not to bring the old-fashioned green trolleys back, he said.

The idea is part of the $1 billion effort to rebuild the seawall, replace public piers, build new parks and make other improvements when a tunnel replaces the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Initially, the waterfront plan did not include bringing the Benson back. James Corner Field Operations, the Manhattan landscape architecture company that’s designing the waterfront, said there would not be enough room for the trolley. Corner proposed moving the waterfront trolley to First Avenue.

Launched in 1982, the two-mile Benson line ran from Main Street in Pioneer Square to the entrance of Myrtle Edwards Park. It was one of the of the country’s first experiments in creating and operating a “vintage rail” system. With its conductors and mahogany interiors, the quaint line was a waterfront signature.

George Benson, the late city councilman, worked for eight years to start the service. He found the 1920s cars in Melbourne, Australia, and five coaches were acquired.

The Seattle Times reported that 450,000 people, many tourists, rode the Benson line in 2003, two years before service stopped in 2005, after the line’s maintenance barn was removed to make way for the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Since then, the cars have been stored in a Sodo warehouse.

Now Tom Gibbs, a retired director of King County Metro, is working to resurrect the Benson.

Gibbs, a member of the Washington State Major League Baseball Public Facilities District that oversees Safeco Field, was looking at the city’s plans for the First Hill Streetcar line, which is now under construction. He noticed the new line came within 50 feet of the old Benson and was surprised to find out that the city did not plan to restart the Benson.

He got the facilities district board to study the possibility. The state Public Stadium Authority, which oversees CenturyLink Field, and the Mariners and Seahawks backed the 2011 study, which cost $76,000, he said.

URS, the engineering company that did the investigation, found the streetcar could be reactivated for between $10.3 million and $12.7 million.

Some high-profile people are lining up to support the cause. Gibbs is assembling a steering committee, and said that former Gov. Dan Evans, Boeing Chairman Emeritus Frank Shrontz and activist Jim Ellis are among those who have agreed to help.

But saying that the system should be resurrected, and actually doing it, are different things.

Launching the original line took eight years, and along the way, it “encountered a daunting succession of political, bureaucratic, financial and engineering obstacles," Benson said in a 1992 speech to the Vintage Trolley session of the TRB International Light Rail conference, held in Calgary, Canada. Development costs ballooned from a few hundred thousand dollars to nearly $10 million.

Now, some of the old trolley tracks have been ripped out and would have to be replaced. A new maintenance barn would need to be built, although the barn for the First Hill line could be expanded to accommodate the old cars, said Gibbs. This is just some of the work that would need to be done.

The idea to relaunch the Benson is preliminary. Travis Phelps, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said his agency has not yet been contacted about the plan.

Yet WSDOT already is balking at having anything to do with the funding. Gibbs thinks the agency should help pay as mitigation for removing the viaduct.

In 2009, the state and city signed an agreement that states it is the city’s responsibility to evaluate a First Avenue streetcar. “That pretty much throws the responsibility of the streetcar onto the city,” Phelps said.

And Phelps said that under an agreement with King County Metro for the demolition of the viaduct, the county is responsible for transit along the new waterfront. “The streetcar does not fall under our responsibility,” he said.

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