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.
Mr. Margard’s dislike of a streetcar extension would carry more weight if there were more than his own opinions. He makes assertions, but where are there either studies or facts to go along with his opinions? A key financial argument are past escalating construction costs. The few construction projects of any kind that come in on budget or under make headlines. A wise reader factors in price escalation.
The argument of diminished ridership ignores the existence and impact of Covid.
Mr. Margard’s arguments are an argument against public transport. Public transport was once the backbone of Seattle development with service to and from Tacoma in a time when the achievement was lauded and put Seattle in the top tier of American cities with the best public transport. Now Seattle wallows in the top tier of American cities with terminal traffic problems. Cars that often carry single passengers versus a tram that can carry dozens, even hundreds; is that what the city needs more of?
Light rail and trams bring people into businesses, they don’t prevent people from shopping because cars get stuck behind trams. Visit any European city and look at the ingenuity with which rails are wound through narrow ancient streets. The former waterfront street car line using antique cars aimed at tourists was a loss and needs to be returned. Lisbon a city of narrow winding streets and steep hills uses trams restored from the 1920s in St Louis. They are a tourist destination and packed with locals as well.
Ever go to a sporting event in either downtown stadium? Light rail is packed going and coming, yet Mr. Margard seems to think it is a dream to think trams would not have the same experience.
An increasing percentage of young people have no interest in car ownership. Applications for new driver’s licenses in the young demographic is in a long-term steady decline. Help them. Put down more rails and give. them more tram lines.
The Post Alley on “Disconnected” — please do NOT build the 1st av streetcar “connector” is spot on! Thank you. Do send this piece to the Sea Times for an op-ed so it will get wider circulation. Send it to the Mayor and Council and SDOT!
Mr. Margard’s comments are spurious at best. The city needs to complete this vision of a streetcar system from downtown to Pioneer Square to Cap Hill. If Seattle weren’t inherently bold, we wouldn’t have had Metro and the clean up of polluted Lake Washington, we wouldn’t have the Ship Canal, Seattle Center, the Space Needle, MOPOP or the publically financed stadiums in PIoneer Square.
Throwing good money after bad is almost always a bad idea. This piece is spot on.
Quit taking bus service hours that are actually needed by poor and working class folks and squandering them on what is essentially a development incentive/vanity project for the well-to-do.
…not to mention that fact that further screwing up vehicle traffic downtown as drastically as this proposes is simply dumb as dirt (to put it charitably and without using the kind of foul language that this proposal actually deserves).
I notice that SDOT now wants to rebrand the midtown connector as the Cultural Connector, which is a stretch for midtown arts on Third and Seattle Center, but at least that seems like a local benefit and part of the Mayor’s arts-renewal positioning. The Pike Market and the South Lake Union Amazonia are notably thin on the arts. Better to call it the Reelection Connector?
I still have my “Ride the South Lake Union Transit” (SLUT) t-shirt. Let’s call this Ride the “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Connector” (DEI). All opposition will melt away.
Wouldn’t a monorail be a good idea here?
We’d get our heads bitten off but a monorail would be a good idea throughout downtown; but I can hear the screams now. Germany still has some of its “upside down” monorails. They are in daily commuter use and a big draw for tourists. But all that makes too much sense for the car lovers and public transport deniers.
I am all for public transit – safe, efficient, economically credible transit that many people will use. My issue is that the connector doesn’t really check the box on these issues. And it’s not good civic stewardship to pursue the next “shiny object” based on hopes and dreams without doing a thorough examination of likely negative externalities and unintended consequences. (Think about the plan 50 years ago to replace the Market with “condo city”.) Three businesses on 1st Ave. between Pike and Union recently closed shop – an indication of the challenges businesses continue to face along the route. Not mentioned are the difficulties Pioneer Square businesses – a short walk from the Market – face. The lengthy project and elimination of street parking could create a economic tipping point for many businesses there, too.
It seems to be difficult for the naysayers to accept the proven notion that public transit in any form brings business, it doesn’t prevent business. There is a usually overlong construction phase where businesses suffer, but there are many examples of municipal and/or County subsidies that replace lost business because of construction down time.
If anyone wants an example of the development potential in public transit take a trip through Raineer valley and see the sprouting of housing developments that will people to local businesses. Ask any real estate agent of what public transit , light rail and trams, does to land and building and home values.
The alternative to searching for downsides is will not rejuvenate closed businesses downtown. People will rejuvenate downtown Seattle and every new tram line and light rail line will bring them in.
The only thing disconnected is your view on reality and urbanism. In this day and age we ought to be moving away from automobiles, especially in our busy downtowns. The more walkable these areas are, the better. Limiting vehicle access to these areas will allow for greater pedestrian safety, and will allow for increased foot traffic that will ultimately benefit businesses.
Absolutely first rate piece, well researched description of the Connector, its costs, held together by its logic.
One correction: Given past record, Seattle Dept. Of Transportation won’t take two years to build the Connector. It will be completed two years behind schedule.
I used to stand on the corner of 5th and Jackson waiting for my bus to the VA Medical Center. (By the way, this was nearly 25 years ago, and, ha, no extension yet.) I was simply appalled to see two, maybe three, passengers on every car, with the capacity of 50-100? Knowing how much was spent on this project thus far and knowing that expansion was planned, I was sick. And, what a disruptive influence the line has on the traffic. It simply did not make sense that this was even planned and, moreover, money was spent. A total waste.
The darn thing does not connect to anything and it is not convenient to the Capital Hill (I presume it was to serve the medical centers), the primary service priority.
Given all the other public transit alternatives that are more convenient, I would prefer to see the line discontinued, rails torn out and, if any money remains, apply it to the light rail.
I wish more attention could be given to the peril that these rails present to bicyclists. Cultural Connector? I think Cyclist Suicide Connector has a nice ring, and it would serve as public service information.
I’ve always wanted to see a continuous route that connects downtown, Pike Place, Pioneer Square, Capitol Hill. But the fact is that while Sound Transit light rail has lots of ridership (whether fare-paying or not) and Metro busses have some riders, I have never seen evidence that anyone rides the SLU or Broadway trolleys. They still appear to be vanity projects.
Cars will not go away no matter how many impediments we place in their way, or how difficult, expensive and frustrating we make it for drivers. Automobiles take people where they want to go, point to point. Contrast that to what SDOT has adopted as its mantra: “From Where You’re Not to Where You Don’t Want to Go.”
A run on response. Two cyclists have died at the FHSC tracks. I have seen several slip on South Jackson Street. Even former Councilmember O’Brien fell on SLU streetcar tracks. The official name is the Center City Connector; the study was during the Murry term; it asked what was the best way to connect the two other streetcars with a streetcar; a very narrow question. Two councilmembers voted No on the SLU line, Licata and Steinbrueck. Two councilmembers oppose the CCC Streetcar, Pedersen and Herbold. Of course, we want the current council to kill the CCC Streetcar. Perhaps the upcoming study of the DSA 3rd Avenue vision will be the opportunity. The Kubly SDOT CCC Streetcar was a disaster; Mayor Durkan correctly paused it. The key questions are of opportunity cost; what is the best use of limited transportation capital, operating subsidy, and 1st Avenue right of way. I suggest that better local transit circulation could be provided in downtown Seattle by shifting several routes to 1st Avenue from 3rd Avenue and having SDOT move them better with red paint and signage. The $300 million can be spent on better projects. The Kubly design was silly; it is shaped like a bobby pin. Link is key. The Spotts vision can be accomplished without the CCC Streetcar.
Parking. Entitled drivers whining about parking. In downtown no less. God awful that SDOT competes against the private marketplace with city-financed free and subsidized parking. Shame on you car-dependent freeloaders. Leave your damned cars in suburbia where they and you belong!
Build the connector now!
Entitled elitist jerks whining about people who need parking. Get over yourself, yourself (and ask the blue-collar folks who have to drive for a living who brought your laptop to you how they feel about the elimination of parking and loading zones while you’re at it).
Good money after bad is still too much money.
Correction to my calculation of carbon emissions released from just the concrete portion of the project. It as a smaller number. It would approximate 17.85 million pounds, or 9,000 tons of emissions. My previous calculations did not include the dilutive effect of aggregates on the cement content in concrete. My apologies.
The entire street car project has been a colossal waste of money, not mention the disruptive construction and the danger the rails present to cyclists. City would have been much better off running low entry buses along this entire loop. Denver does something similar and it is great.
Paving over the rails and getting rid of existing streetcars would be better than adding to a bad system.
The SDOT re-marketing of the connector as “the cultural connector” reveals the weakness of the initial argument that the route would effectively serve as a commuter choice for low and low-to-middle class work commuters from the ID and Capitol Hill to the city center. This CH demographic most densely resides on the west side of the hill and can more easily reach the city center by taking the light rail from the Denny/Broadway station, existing and proposed bus routes, or by simply walking/e-biking instead of the slower streetcar option. In the wake of the remote worker and high commercial vacancy rate phenomenon, an alternative narrative was apparently needed. But unless you are going to the Showbox or MOHAI, there is little reason to use the proposed connector. It is far easier, in general to reach the sports stadiums, Benaroya, the Moore, Paramount, 5th Ave. Theater, etc., etc., even SAM by using the light rail, various bus options, or just walk/e-bike. The narratives of the connector as a commuter or cultural catalyst just doesn’t hold water.
It appears the Connecting Corridor is in abeyance between the two separating sides of the city from Westlake Square over First Avenue to Pioneer Square into the First Hill/Broadway Line— what’s missing in this picture is relevant to unifying the entire system as it stands right now. Currently, the Light Rail Link has an on ramp for the Eastside which runs now adjacent to the entryway at Union Square. The ramp also serves entry straightaway onto 5th Avenue South at Seattle Blvd. S., which leads directly into S. Jackson Street. Meaning, should the lines intersect between the two arterials off of the Link Light Rail from the Eastside into the Connector on First Avenue and over to South Lake Union, this would enhance purposefully unifications on all sides for serving more than one area of the city itself. Subway lines like light rail or trams overlap with other interurban routes. Making those transfers between stations is not unheard of or unknown either. Regardless of any large scale transfer point between stations this is not it realistic of how Seattle situated its original streetcar or cable car routes long before they were dismantled. The point is for people headed to the airport or Eastside can transfer at Union Station if the Connections existed in both directions. How much time would it entail if the Eastside linked also went to South Lake Union — it’s shortened commuter service through the City over Westlake. And if there were a connecting link to Broadway from this very point serving Capitol Hill to this from the surface grade between First Hill and Union Station via 5th Avenue S. it would appear people have options traveling from point to point rapidly without any additional bus lines to depend on per se. There is good reason to CONNECT the dots here. It is logistical for one, and makes perfect sense in the long term foreseeable future for transit systemization and unity.