The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Plans to expand Seattle Streetcar program

Seattle goes gah-gah over choo-choos

As Seattle considers a plan to extend the South Lake Union Streetcar line, it's time to decide whether returning to a 19th-century transportation method is really the answer.

By Ross Anderson

We have seen the future of Seattle mass transit, and it looks suspiciously like the past. It is shiny and red and goes clackity-clack between South Lake Union and Westlake. It travels at a maximum speed of 20 mph and costs about $40 million per mile to build.

Seattle, it seems, has gone downright gah-gah over choo-choos. Whatever the price in dollars and aggravation, the city is determined to take the A-Train. We haven't yet completed that $2.7 billion-dollar rail line to Sea-Tac, but Sound Transit is desperately seeking more billions to extend that line to Northgate. We have the new South Lake Union Streetcar. And this week, planners unveiled their sketchy visions for streetcar lines in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and the University District.

All this stokes the ongoing debate: How do we best relieve traffic, or at least provide an alternative way to get around? More roads? Or buses? Or rails? If the rail buffs have their way, we'll soon be looking at and living in a cityscape reminiscent of another century — the 19th.

The operative map for Seattle's transit vision is about a century old. You can go back to 1910, when Gramma and Grampa got around town just fine on a system of about 70 miles of streetcar tracks, including the legendary Interurban trolley that rumbled all the way to Everett and Tacoma. It was a fine system, and we probably should have kept it.

But we didn't. The tide turned in about 1911, when the city hired a smart fellow (read "consultant") named Virgil Bogue to come out and draw up a bold new plan for Seattle. Bogue looked around, hired a crew of draftsmen, and produced an inch-thick document calling for an elaborate, New York-style transit system, with subways and elevated trains and a tunnel under Lake Washington.

Put to a popular vote, the Bogue Plan lost by nearly 2-1. That was the beginning of the end. By the 1930s, the city was ripping up tracks and replacing streetcars with buses. The Interurban made its last run in 1939, just as engineers were completing the first floating bridge across the lake. By the beginning of the War, the transition was complete; Seattle had banked its future on the automobile.

Rail buffs blame a nationwide conspiracy by General Motors to sell more buses. But rail transit was always geographically challenged in Seattle. All those picturesque hills and lakes serve as significant obstacles to streetcars that don't climb hills, and don't float.

In any event, things haven't worked out well. In the late 60s and early 70s, voters rejected plans for new freeways and for a proposed rapid transit system. So the city had to grow and prosper without any major expansion of its transportation system. For some time, the preferred strategy was buses, or more precisely "bus rapid transit," which uses express buses in exclusive transit-only lanes, including the downtown bus tunnel.

But by the 1990s, the city was gridlocked. Drivers rolled down their car windows, shook their collective fists and bellowed something like "Do something. Do anything. But fix this mess!"

And that's more or less what's happening. Government is doing something and anything — digging holes, pouring concrete, laying rails, buying railcars — in a desperate attempt to rebuild what it dismantled 70 years ago. It's a system development by committee, or by many committees. Sound Transit builds light rail and operates those commuter trains to Tacoma and Everett. King County Metro builds and runs the new streetcar, along with the existing bus system. The state is adding HOV and transit lanes to the freeways. For a while, we had yet another agency building a monorail, until it collapsed on itself.

Which is what skeptics expect to happen with some or all of those other railroad-builders. Critics of rail trail transit scored a huge victory last fall when voters rejected Sound Transit's bid for billions more tax dollars. Yet the streetcar fad suggests that somebody out there is still determined to ride those rails.

Rail critics see their own conspiracy. Randal O'Toole is an Oregon economist and self-styled libertarian who argues that Seattle is about to join dozens of cities that have got little or no benefits from the billions spent on light rail. Trolleys and streetcars are 19th century technology that is too slow, too dangerous and too expensive, he says. "Light rail is simply one more way to take money from the pockets of ordinary taxpayers and put it in the pockets of wealthy businesses."

Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, a citizen group opposed to light rail, argues that Seattle had built one of the world's best bus systems, and could adapt HOV lanes and traffic lights to move express buses more efficiently than light rail.

But for every O'Toole there is a Todd Litman, a Victoria, BC, consultant who travels the world advising cities from Dubai to Valparaiso to San Jose how to build rail transit systems. And Litman is pro-streetcar. "Seattle originally developed around streetcars and railways," Litman says. "It doesn't make sense to argue that it can't work again."

Litman learned his way around transportation issues as a volunteer bicycle advocate in Olympia, and eventually studied transit issues at Evergreen State College. He frequently finds himself at odds with the likes of O'Toole.

Ultimately, the choice between rail transit and bus transit is made by passengers, he says. "There is a bias out there. People will pay more for a Mercedes than for a Chevy. There is nothing wrong with people wanting something more prestigious, and they view light rail and streetcars as more comfortable and more prestigious."

But do taxpayers want to pay $40 million per mile for a little prestige?

John Niles, a transportation consultant and critic of light rail, is a little kinder toward streetcars. They are probably a mistake, he says, "but the scale of the error is so much smaller than with light rail."

Streetcars have a few things going for them, he says. South Lake Union businesses are picking up part of the costs of the new line, and hopefully that would be the case with other lines, he says. They may attract some tourists. And neighborhood businesses are very fond of them.

"As transportation, they don't make much sense," he says. "But they're nice. They're an amenity. They're street candy."

* Ross Anderson is a freelance journalist and blogger who lives and works in Port Townsend, Wash. His blog can be found at

My grandmother used to say
Report a violationPosted by: hacknflack on May 13, 2008 8:06 AM
Editor's Pick " when they passed out brains, they though they said TRAINS, and they MISSED theirs..."

As a multi generational resident, and one who works in and around Seattle transportation, I was interested to read the proposal for a new Seattle Streetcar Network.

I am a supporter of light rail, streetcars, cable cars, and any form of pragmatic transportation. But I am curious about the lack of discussion of an interbay route.

King County staff spent time and our money to review a potential extension to Interbay from the old Benson Trolley route about five years ago. We were told both the Port of Seattle, and the major tennant of Pier 86 office park, Amgen, were very interested. Now even MORE development is going on in this corridor with Whole Foods, condos, and most importantly, the new Cruise Ship terminal scheduled to open next summer.

With a majority of the more than 200 plus sailings a summer planned from the Port of Seattle’s cruise ship terminal at Pier 90/91, this dock is poorly served by METRO and Sound Transit. At a time when we are attempting to build a green city, forcing ships to plug into the dock, we are bringing upwards of 6,000 folks PER DAY in and out of this pier.

Further, this line could be built mostly on land ALREADY owned BY THE CITY (through Myrtle Edwards Park), and run parallel to existing heavy rail. A simple extension of the current Benson Line could bring streetcar access to the thousands of folks working along Elliott, at Pier 86, and the pier, along with Smith Cove. Clever routing could even bring it to the Interbay neighborhood. Clever routing could even make it circle around Nickerson, serving SPU and South Freemont Bridge, then back south to meet up with the current line at South Lake Union.

The line could also take the WEST side of the Elliott Street parking from Denny North, and on the sidewalk from Broad Street to Denny, and a spur could climb up and over the bridge, or stay on the east side of the tracks and head north on 15th.

The other end of the line should and could be extended through the ID, and even then curve down under the freeway interchange of I-90 and I-5, and circle over to Safeco Field and the Quest Exhibition Center, then loop back in to the line.

I am aware that when they built the SAM Sculpture Park, the right of way for BNSF left not enough room for the trolley line. I believe this could still be achieved by routing via the pedestrian side of the bridge (to the west) or with the help of a safe signal / bypass to insure the trolley would only venture through the gap when there was no train. (a similar signal system was installed at the Monorail after the crash).

I believe the Port might even help fund the line for the sake of traffic reduction and tourism. Currently Metro does such a poor job of service to the offices of the biotech firm at Pier 86, Amgen hired a private company to offer their employees a SHUTTLE service that runs all day long between their other offices and that site.

At first glance, it would appear that this line could even pay for itself with the ridership potential, yet there is no mention of it.

I believe the new terminal would be a great candidate for a Trolley Line. I would hope it would be studied.

by: vito on May 13, 2008 8:54 AM
I suspect the City's energy behind expanding a streetcar system is simply to be able to control and add capacity to transit within Seattle without having to beg or pay off Metro. This is an indicative of a larger trend to plan for transit at a regional level where regional solutions - such as light rail - always benefit at the expense of locally focused investments - such as bike facilities. This creates disincentives for dense communities which could actually make transit work.

Bring back the cable cars
by: dn on May 13, 2008 9:49 AM
Why do we let the other city by a bay attract zillions of tourists and their dollars when we could easily compete? Since streetcars are at best amenities and not mass transportation systems (and becoming commonplace across the country as an urban disease akin to penis envy spreads), we should go for the transit vehicles that would really attract interest and can navigate the downtown grade. There must be at least one in a museum somewhere that could be resurrected. Crosscut should start a campaign.

It's not about moving people
Rby: paddystclair on May 13, 2008 11:40 AM
What struck me about the plan to put streetcars through Freemont and on to Ballard is how closely the route followed areas that have been the target of developers who need to get rid of many of the industrial/business tennets before they can construct high priced water view condos. It's not like the City hasnt used "special developement taxes" before in order to preasure smaller business to relocate (See South Lake Union) in favour of larger firms easy aquisitions of those locations. So maybe the streetcars are designed to move people-- just not as transite.

My paranoia grows when I see a posting as sensical as the first one on this column. An Interbay route would serve an obvious need, have less impact on traffic, and create a positive first impression on visiting tourists who could disembark on peir 99 and be downtown in 10 minutes. An Interbay route would follow an historic rail line, connect dowtown residents to accessable grocery shopping ( once the new shoppng center has opened) and provide thrilling vistas if routed through Mrytle Edwards. In short, an Interbay line might actually move people--as opposed to the Slut, which we must admidt, is an over priced Disney ride for Mr Allen's vanity and Mayor Quimby's ego.

An Interbay route wont get ride of those pesky small business along Leary though--so I doubt that the City will find it very profitable.

"through Myrtle Edwards Park"
Report a violationPosted by: kieth on May 13, 2008 12:02 PM
In my mind I had trouble following the route described but I would be concerned about rail line going "through Myrtle Edwards park". Isn't the Park only a few hundred feet wide in several places (and even less in some places); how much park would remain if a streetcar line (northbound, southbound) went through there?

Street Cars worked great for me-
Posted by: JGropp on May 13, 2008 1:52 PM
As a kid, I rode the streetcars from Wallingford down through Fremont along Westlake. I just now looked carefully at your historical picture to see me getting off the streetcar to get my braces tightened- but I wasn't in the picture. Jerry Gropp Architect AIA


better ideas?
Report a violationPosted by: david2 on May 13, 2008 7:55 PM
Editor's Pick So, what is the 21st century option, then? Maybe we can get some of those Japanese high-speed trains that would get us from downtown to the airport in 2 minutes...

I'm not a huge fan of the streetcar, given that it has to wait in traffic like everything else. On the other hand, it's cleaner and newer than the buses, and those signs that tell you when the next train is arriving are nice.

Individual cars obviously aren't the future; a city needs mass transit once it reaches a certain size. (I don't own a car, personally, and at the rate gas prices are going, my interest in driving is only declining.)

Whoever said "Seattle has one of the world's best bus systems" must not have lived in many cities. (Or else I've just been extremely fortunate in the places I've lived.) You can't even get from downtown Bellevue to Seattle after midnight, service is infrequent off-peak, buses are packed on-peak, bus-priority corridors are rare, no real-time arrival signs, few per-stop schedules... lots of room for improvement.

Age isn't a valid argument one way or another, anyway. Lots of old things are still good. (I'm still rather fond of the wheel.)

My hopes
sjenner on May 14, 2008 11:27 AM
1. The city council and whoever's paying the bill (nearby property owners, city residents, etc) have full and accurate information about just how much it costs to operate these trolleys, and where the funding will come from on an ongoing basis.

2. They won't slow down buses and make traffic worse.

3. The overall impact on air quality would be positive. Creating traffic jams could outweigh any positive impact of more riders on trolleys than on buses, which might or might not happen anyways.

As I looked at the diagram of the route maps in the paper, I was struck by how little land there is near to the proposed routes, particularly Eastlake. This creates a somewhat different situation compared to South Lake Union when it comes to taxing nearby property owners. There simply isn't that much property to tax.

DMorrill on May 14, 2008 3:47 PM
The streetcar plan is tragic and insane. We replaced streetcars with electic trolleys for the sane and simple reason that they are far more effective. Rail cars on arterials interefere with cars, delivery trucks, bike, busses, pedestrians and will create congestion and impede the flow of traffic. It is simple math and queing theory. Cuteness is not an acceptable basis for transportation planning.
O'Toole by the way is totally correct in his analysis of the economic of rail, including in Portland and Vancouver. Now folks here support rail on romantic grounds rather than economic effectiveness - there are few riders relative to the capital and operating costs, and a small payoff relative to alternative investments --but that's our right. Still the solution for quality uncongested transport is well understood by economists. If people had to pay closer to the real costs, via congestion pricing, tolls, parking, etc, carpooling and an extensive superior bus system would ensure an effective transport solution.

The articles are posted solely for educational purposes to raise awareness of transportation issues. I claim no authorship, nor do I profit from this website. Where known, all original authors and/or source publisher have been noted in the post. As this is a knowledge base, rather than a blog, I have reproduced the articles in full to allow for complete reader understanding and allow for comprehensive text searching...see custom google search engine at the top of the page. If you have concerns about the inclusion of a specific article, please email for a speedy resolution.