Straight Talk about Seattle Streetcar


The downtown connector streetcar project concept has been bantered about for well over a decade. Renewed interest at Seattle’s Department of Transportation and at Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and City Council should lead to an honest reassessment and a new environmental impact statement.

To those government stewards, I ask one simple favor: Give it to us straight. Facts and truthful assessments, please. Help us gain confidence in information you provide. So far, visions are vague, titillating, and unconvincing. But unbiased granular and accurate detail are what citizens need to understand impacts from costly projects that will affect us for decades.

We haven’t been given these facts yet. We were told in 2014 the connector streetcar capital costs would be $110 million, which ballooned to $286 million five years later. Still quoted, that new number fails to account for the last four and a half years of high inflation. We await the real number. Further, we know that ongoing operating and maintenance costs are about 50% higher than for buses, so what are realistic annual operating loss projections ten years out?

Ridership is another area needing candor. The rider count has consistently failed to reach rosy projections on the First Hill (FH) and South Lake Union (SLU) lines. SLU has actually seen ridership decline since its inception in 2007, despite the surge of employment and new apartments in the area over that period. Notably, the addition of the RapidRide C line caused streetcar ridership to plummet about 10 years ago, so it’s reasonable to ask what other future lines will trim streetcar ridership. FH line ridership actually perked up in 2017, but that was due to new connections to RapidRide and light rail lines, where the FH line shares revenue allocations. 

System-wide streetcar ridership projections are from 5,500 passengers per day recently, to 22,000-25,000 in the first full year of a connected system. Wow, that’s impressive! But that requires the current average passenger count of 20 per full line run to balloon to 130-147. That’s for every run, at 12-minute intervals, 17 hours a day (both more frequent and for more hours than now). Fewer than that range would cause ridership to come up short of projections. Those elevated levels, however, would be similar to the Manhattan subway line 6 at rush hour, but for all morning, afternoon and night. Is that even possible? With the rise of Uber and electric bikes, and more workers working remotely? Those numbers would require that all 40 seats be perpetually filled with many more than 40 riders standing.  

Given these rosy projections, the connector recently shifted its branding to being a “cultural connector.” Really? I rode the FH line on a sunny July 1 Saturday, arriving at 3 pm at the Jackson Street station near T-Mobile Park, before a 4:30 Mariners game. Five people got off. Where were the fans, I wondered? Would the full-line connector fix that? And what if someone from the most populous area of Capitol Hill chooses to go from their apartment to Climate Pledge Arena for a big-star rock show or witness the Kraken crunch the Canucks? Following a 5-10 minute walk to the terminus, an average 6-minute wait for the streetcar to depart, a 45-50 minute ride (I’m telling you, it’s slow), then a half-mile, 20-minute walk, voila! You made it to the show in 1 hour and 20 minutes. (Better to Uber or e-scoot?) 

What if instead, you wanted to go to the Paramount, ACT, or 5th Avenue Theater? It will take you 15 minutes on foot, compared to a 55-minute walk and streetcar ride combo jaunt. Why should the city plunk down $1 million requested by Mayor Harrell for a delivery assessment on the (dis)connector, now rebranded as “cultural”?

Next, regarding commercial impact, how would the Showbox Theater on First Ave. load shows or be serviced by commercial vehicles, with parking gone and three traffic lanes eliminated along most of narrow First Ave.? (By chopper, perchance?) Would the beloved Showbox’s survival be threatened? How many other businesses in the iconic Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market districts would face the same squeeze? How many do you expect would fail simply due to the connector’s disruptive construction? And how long would the project really take? Judging by the Madison St. project fiasco, 3 years? 4 years?

Another area demanding straight talk is public safety. Perhaps the most extensive study completed on streetcar and bus safety was done by the German insurance industry GDV, covering over 4,000 accidents in 58 cities during 2009-2011. It concluded that streetcars were 4.8 times more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than buses over similar distances, and that 85% of deaths were pedestrians. Serious injuries were 75% more frequent. Configurations with center-loading stations and 2-4 lanes, similar to the connector design, were the most dangerous, according to the study.

Is it possible to accurately forecast incremental pedestrian deaths caused by the connector in this, the busiest pedestrian corridor in the city? What about two-wheelers? They don’t take nicely to steel rail tracks, and accident rates can be high. Toronto determined that one-third of its bicycle accidents are related to streetcars, primarily from getting caught in the tracks. And what about those two tight 90-degree angle turns at Jackson and Stewart streets? Could these new streetcars, almost a third of a football field in length, really make those turns safely, crossing traffic lanes and bike and pedestrian paths? Or do advocates believe that your “vision” trumps public safety?

Another vexed area is whether these streetcars would be climate-friendly, as claimed. What about the impact of destroying large shade trees in Pioneer Square? Adding millions of pounds of carbon to the atmosphere during construction? Would electric buses be deployed with a lesser carbon footprint?

Most of us are fans of “Space Needle thinking,” as heralded by Mayor Harrell. I get it. But a 39-ton machine rolling slowly down rail tracks (with a cute little ringing bell) hardly screams “Space Needle thinking.” All 30 trolley rail lines that were running in Seattle in 1939 vanished by the end of the century except for one along Alaska Way, scrapped soon after. Cause of death of the trolley lines? Ridership and costs, familiarly enough.

So please, give us straight answers and critical thinking to these questions. Give us reasons to trust you to be thorough, unbiased, and truthful — especially given past miscalculations and hazy platitudes. Give us integrity in your messaging. And if you are not firmly committed to that rigor, it’s high time to get real and nix the deal!

Jim Margard
Jim Margard
Jim Margard is a retired entrepreneurial investment manager, founder and partner of Rainier Investment Management, and a Chartered Financial Analyst. He serves on the Finance Committee of the Pike Place Market Foundation and resides at First and Union.


  1. The questions Mr. Margard raises, particularly in relation to reliable information from official sources, are valid and need better data. That said many of the arguments about the efficacy of trolleys are unrefuted and I expect there are answers that would balance the arguments better than the overall negativity presented. One point I can add is that the problems of bicycles crossing trolley lines, particularly on curves that are hard for bicycles to avoid are rubber inserts that flatten the trough in the rails, a common sight in most of the European cities I know. When it comes to projections of traffic and ridership, particularly 10 years out, those projections are notoriously unreliable not only in traffic but most other fields as well.
    A larger thought is that if most cities of Seattle’s size and large in developed countries around the world have used trolleys for years and grown as well as modernized their systems as technology evolves. The real issue is public transport versus less or no public transport.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective. Just to be clear, I believe a bus would be better than a trolley. The capital costs for a trolley are prohibitive. Mayor Durkan did the right thing by mothballing the 1st Ave trolley.

      • You are right about the differential on costs, but public transport is not an either/or proposition. Cities need an overall transportation plan that may be step by step implementation, but there needs to be an integration of systems and that means all forms of transport and how they will intersect and compliment each other. My sense is that Seattle has always been a one step at a time approach and each step ends up debated sometimes to death, but rarely part of a vision of where and how to get there.

    • It does not follow that since other countries have invested in high speed rail that Seattle should destroy First Avenue, presently the only north-south arterial downtown that has an active and vital street life: restaurants, hotels, shops, theaters, actual pedestrians,
      coffee houses, bars, the Seattle Art Museum. No buses. No bike lanes. Even an occasional street parking place. The construction of the streetcar line would destroy this for a decade, maybe forever. If we want a vital downtown, take a look at First Avenue today.

  2. “All 30 trolley rail lines that were running in Seattle in 1939 vanished by the end of the century except for one along Alaska Way, scrapped soon after.” Actually, the Alaska Way (“Waterfront Streetcar”) line didn’t exist until 1982, when it was installed along the central waterfront, with surplussed cars purchased from Melbourne Australia. It was extended to the CID in 1990, then the whole shebang was killed in 2005 when the maintenance barn was displaced by construction of SAM’s Sculpture Garden. Efforts to revive it have not succeeded.

  3. “The real issue is public transport versus less or no public transport.”

    Really? So less dangerous, less disruptive and much more economical bus transport would be perfectly acceptable? I think that would work for many of the connector’s critics, so I hope this gets back to the mayor.

  4. No reference to getting to the newly minted Seattle Waterfront Park? No meaningful transportation option for convention goers to get from the Sheraton/Westin complex to the waterfront park.

  5. Really, there is only one question that needs to be answered: “What advantage do steel wheels have over rubber?” Until that is answered, this is all just nonsense.

    From an engineering point of view, streetcars are ludicrous anachronisms. Yet criticism somehow always devolves into accusations of being anti-transit. Defenders typically list light rail features (e.g. dedicated right of way, larger capacity, higher speeds, etc) that do not apply to streetcars. And articles like this center on transit goals that could be better achieved by rubber-wheeled busses.

    Please understand: the decision to install rails into streets has no bearing on whether to deploy and invest in public transportation, but rather the most cost efficient and safest way to do that. As the Rapid Ride lines show, rubber tires beat steel wheels for transit on shared streets. It’s faster, cheaper, more versatile, and safer.

    Streetcars and their tracks are at best nostalgic fluff, at middling destroyers of neighborhoods (Jackson St has never rebounded), and at worst a death trap for pedestrians and cyclists. Let’s just cut out this talk and double down on the transit technology that works and that already exists.

    • Yours is an engineers perspective. and from that point of view accurate. But Public Transport is not solely an engineers domain and whether rubber on buses is cheaper than wheels on steel is not the issue. I support public transport because contrary to your view I look at what exists all over the world, cities with elaborate integrated public transport. Munich is a comparable example to Seattle, but with the addition of what we substitute light rail with – subways.
      The city of Munich is navigable by a combination of subways (including suburban lines than run under the city), busses that serve areas not reached by trolleys, and trolleys. The schedules are integrated so that the wait between systems is usually no more than a minute or two.
      But the central point remains, if you take a dollars and cents approach to decisions about public transport, your arguments will always seem attractive. But public transport in most of the developed world is considered a municipal and regional responsibility, yes subsidized, because the number of systems that work at a profit or even break even can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Public transport is a human necessity in urban and suburban areas, particularly for the people at lower economic levels.

      • Sorry, but wrecking First Avenue to install another unsafe, unneeded, underperforming, overpriced toy train won’t turn Seattle into Munich, no matter how many times we tap our slippers together and say “public transport.”
        Another note re. the Waterfront “Streetcar”: It wasn’t a streetcar at all. It ran along a grade-separated legacy rail track, so it didn’t mix it up with traffic or endanger cyclists. One more reason, along with the beautiful wooden surplus cars, that it was a relative bargain though lightly used, mostly by tourists and other waterfront visitors. Port Commissioner Paige Miller suggested moving the barn to Interbay and running the trolley out to there, which would have compounded its transit value, especially with the subsequent growth there and, soon, on the waterfront. But no one else was interested–proving once again that Seattle never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and never fails to throw money at mirages.

  6. Correction: The streetcars would be about one-fifth the length of a football field, not “almost one-third” My apologies. -Jim

  7. How did I miss this outstanding piece and all of the colorful spot-on comments?
    Eric Scigliano, “‘…proving once again that Seattle never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity, ” – LOVE THAT.
    Eric Salaathe: “Streetcars and their tracks are at best nostalgic fluff, at middling destroyers of neighborhoods (Jackson St has never rebounded),” YES!
    Gordon Bowker: “Presently the only north-south arterial downtown that has an active and vital street life: restaurants, hotels, shops, theaters, actual pedestrians,
    coffee houses, bars, the Seattle Art Museum. ”
    And Bubbleator: “SDOT can apparently only do one thing well – light money on fire.”
    As my nephew James would say, “Fuck, yeah!”
    Now, send all those great comments to Seattle leadership please.


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