Seattle’s midtown connector streetcar project has been in limbo for the better part of a decade. Fixed-rail streetcars are a transportation alternative that was entirely abandoned for various reasons in Seattle last century. But streetcars gained new life early this century, encouraged by the futuristic idealism of Paul Allen as he was building out the South Lake Union area.
Politicians jumped on the bandwagon, promising rosy financial and ridership projections and a new age of prosperity for the City Center. Soon another leg of the streetcar from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square — a consolation prize from Sound Transit when it abandoned a First Hill station — was built. The midtown connector streetcar project linking these two stubbed-off lines would, advocates propose, enhance safety for all roadway users, reduce greenhouse gases, increase the mobility of tourists and “casual users” of the zone, benefit businesses in the City Center, and be self sustaining.
Not likely. In a much-changed world, none of those proposals or projections will likely turn out to be true. Now the city has a tough decision to make, whether to build the missing link along narrow First Avenue, or to disconnect the connector. I argue for the latter course.
What the city is proposing, in effect, is a condemnation of the 1.3-mile route on First Avenue, adjacent to the iconic and historic Pike Place Market, in hopes of propping up and connecting the two South Lake Union and Capitol Hill streetcar lines. These lines have been a major disappointment from the standpoint of ridership, operations, and finances.
The proposed connector streetcar (not yet decided on, but seemingly blessed by the City Council and Mayor Bruce Harrell) would eliminate three lanes for vehicles and almost all street parking along its First Avenue route, leaving just one 10-foot lane in each direction for automobiles, business supply and service trucks, pick up and drop off, and emergency response vehicles such as ambulances, fire trucks, and police vehicles. A few pullout areas would be provided here and there, but would be grossly inadequate.
The ability to turn across traffic on First would be eliminated except for one intersection along the route at Madison Street, requiring loop backs to and from Second Avenue. Vehicular access to the Market would be greatly restricted, as traffic along First Avenue would be frequently bottlenecked, creating incremental congestion on Second and Western Avenues. Pike Place Market parking would be further choked. Under what realistic scenario is this sustainable?
For many of the hundreds of merchants, eateries, and farmers that make up the historic and iconic Market ecosystem (it’s not just buildings — it’s residents, families and their livelihoods), the connector and its by-blows would not be sustainable. The Market, like downtown Seattle, is already stressed by post-Covid challenges and depressed downtown conditions. The two-year complete demolition of the First Ave. route, followed by bottlenecked streets and supply access, will create lethal threats to many of these businesses. The ability to operate and even attract customers, especially in off-tourist season, could be greatly impaired.
The Seattle City Center Streetcar Study, made nine years ago, never mentioned these risks. Rather, it asked which of the streetcar options the public preferred. The option of no-build was hardly presented. The study stated that the project aims to enhance the safety of roadway users, but there is nothing to support that proposition. To the contrary, accidents have dramatically increased in most city zones where streetcars have been employed.
These 39-ton behemoth streetcars, moving in both directions, cannot maneuver to avoid pedestrians and vehicles, and are difficult to bring to a quick stop. Yet this is probably the most pedestrian-dense area in the city. Further, 90-degree turns at Jackson and Stewart Streets will come dangerously within inches of intersection sidewalks. In addition, e-scooters and bikes, not really considered at the inception of the project, face major dangers from the fixed track grid. So much for public safety.
But this project is environmentally friendly, right? Hardly. The project itself will be a massive emitter of carbon gases. The production of the concrete alone will result in the release of nearly 25,000 tons (45 million pounds) of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Large mature trees will be ripped out in the meridians at the south end of First Ave. Following completion, bottlenecked traffic will add to emissions.
A better way is electric double-deck tourist buses, which sometimes appear along First Ave. That’s the way I imagine tourists will want to visit Amazon City, the Fred Hutchinson Center, and the Chinatown/International District. Bear in mind that traffic-bound streetcars are the slowest means of public transportation, averaging about 6.8 miles per hour nationally, and running chronically behind schedule.
And what are we to make of the nonsensical and redundant route itself? Even worse, rail means this route would be fixed and unchangeable. Recent and future additions to the city transportation grid — such as the light rail, Rapid Ride Lines C, D, E, G, H, and J and other bus networks — can together do pretty much anything the streetcar system could do and better, cheaper, and with less maintenance. As for the proposed streetcar route along First Ave., it skirts the edges of the true city core and resembles the shape of an open-ended ski boot, unconnected to other transit.
It would be quicker to briskly walk between any of the last eight stops on the South Lake Union Line and the last few stops on the Capitol Hill Line than to take the streetcar itself. Some think the streetcar would be a preferred way for many to get to major sporting and cultural events. Believe that and I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
And what about those financial projections? In 2014, we were told the midtown connector would cost $110 million. Then a year later, it became $143 million; then $198 million in 2016; then $252 million in 2018 followed by $286 million in 2019– the current figure being bantered about. A five-year revision in the estimate of 160%! That estimate fails to account for the above-average inflation of labor, energy and construction materials since 2019. So what is the updated real inflation-adjusted number now? Closer to $400 million? Maybe even a half a billion dollars? Add to that the annual funding required to cover existing streetcar operating deficits — projected to rise from about $2 million in 2020 to at least $15 million in 2026. Add to that the deficit of the connector line, which could be as much as $20 million in its first year.
And as for ridership, if past projections are any indication of the future, there is trouble ahead. In 2014 SDOT projected annual streetcar ridership in 2017 would be 2.1 million, but it turned out to be almost 30% lower. In the first 10 years, the South Lake Union streetcar rider count was essentially unchanged, despite rapid population and employment increases in the area. Total streetcar ridership declined from about 1.4 million in 2017 to just over 800,000 at the end of 2021. We are told daily passengers would shoot up more than four-fold from the current 4-5,000 to about 22,000 soon after completion of the connector. Those figures are almost mathematically impossible, and fail to consider potentially-permanent depressed office occupancy and in-store retail traffic due to work-at-home and on-line shopping trends.
In summary, what city officials have failed to do, despite good intentions, is give adequate consideration to important economic and safety issues, to be responsible stewards of taxpayer funds, and to take seriously the impact on residential and commercial stakeholders in the area of the connector route. The public has been shortchanged with a “vision.” A bad vision at that, and one based on platitudes, projections gone awry, and unattainable hopes. Meanwhile, these plans have failed to explore the real-world unintended consequences the project will likely bring about.
Seattle is a city of dreamers that has accomplished great things, but the dream of a connector streetcar is a nightmare in the making.