Why We Should Not Build the Downtown Streetcar Connector


Since when would a series of store closures along First Avenue help to revitalize downtown Seattle? Mayor Bruce Harrell and Seattle Department of Transportation’s vision of a First Avenue connector streetcar would risk such an exodus. If city officials were to honestly engage business owners and managers along this vibrant commercial area with over 500 small businesses, they would get an earful.

I recently visited with dozens of such stakeholders on First Avenue from the Pike Place Market to Pioneer Square. When informed that the connector would eliminate street parking, left turns, most commercial and passenger loading zones, and reduce traffic to one no-stop lane in each direction, virtually all were alarmed, many saying it would do irreparable damage to their ability to operate.

One Pioneer Square owner, still reeling from First Avenue utility construction completed a few years ago, said: “ I’ve run multiple stores here for almost 40 years, through roadwork, the Great Recession, and the pandemic, and the Connector is the one thing would kill us”.

We’ve already seen this movie. Merchants were key to stopping the SDOT-proposed First Hill streetcar line extension north of Denny Street in 2016. After initially embracing the project, the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce changed its tune, opposing it after witnessing the damaging impact the line had on businesses on Broadway. Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sierra Hansen commented, “If we want to see Broadway thrive, the streetcar is actually the best way to undermine that…it would basically gut access to businesses on Broadway…it limits the access to panel trucks which are the lifeblood of these businesses”.

Advocates cite the operational prospects of a combined streetcar network joining the Capitol Hill Line, terminating in Pioneer Square, and the South Lake Union Line, terminating at Westlake Mall. The existing streetcars averaged about 3,000 passengers a day in 2022, a shrinkage of 35% since 2018. Among the reasons for the decline: would-be passengers worked from home or switched to the new “C” Line and bus routes 40, 62, and 70. The bus lines are frequent, penetrate downtown, and have better transfers with Link Light Rail.

The South Lake Union line had 180,211 passengers in 2022, an average of only 4 riders per trip, despite terminating in the downtown shopping core, a few blocks from the Pike Place Market. I don’t believe that tepid ridership is what streetcar proponents imagined when they conceived the system two decades ago. SDOT’s ridership projection for a connected line has been 20,000-24,000 riders per day. That would equal about 125-150 riders per trip, every hour, 16 hours a day. In what universe is that even possible?

The connector has recently been re-branded by SDOT as the “culture connector.” That designation is a stretch. The proposed Connector network along First Avenue barely comes within a half mile walk of Climate Pledge Arena, The Seattle Rep, Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Museum of Pop Culture, Space Needle, Children’s Museum, Children’s Theater, Chihuly Museum, and Science Center. It would take more than twice as long by traffic-battling streetcar than to go on foot from the Capitol Hill Line’s terminus at First and Jackson to reach the Paramount, ACT, the Moore and 5th Avenue Theaters in downtown Seattle. One of the two arts venues the connector would pass directly in front of (the Showbox) would face an unmanageable loading situation. The project’s “culture” connection would be thin, at best; destructive at worst.

If public transportation to cultural venues is desired, the city should consider less costly, inefficient, and less rigid options that would not require dedicated lanes, and would reach such venues more directly. Electric bus routes could be adapted to downtown needs as they develop rather than be permanently set in concrete like the iron tracks of a streetcar.

First Avenue businesses and residents would not survive without commercial and consumer delivery, passenger load, and disability access vehicles. The new waterfront park will bring more passenger cars, not fewer. Parking demand would rise in the midst of fewer parking options. Eliminating First Avenue parking would further reduce customer visits. Dependent on street parking, Pioneer Square would be hit particularly hard. Vehicles going in and out of parking garages onto single lane traffic on both sides of First Avenue near Columbia Street would cause chronic multi-block backups in both directions. Worse, the First Avenue Connector wouldn’t add a Pioneer Square stop south of Cherry Street.

Then there is the exorbitant price tag of about $300 million ($140,000 per yard) for the three-year Connector construction project. Plus the 50% higher perpetual operating costs relative to buses, long maintenance lead times, and safety issues to pedestrians and two-wheelers. Factor in how slow and unreliable streetcars are, and their disappointing passenger counts. Then consider the irreparable damage to the historic and thriving business and residential communities along the First Avenue route.

The last thing we should do for our fragile downtown is to create new economic dead zones downtown. The Seattle City Council will soon make decisions on funding feasibility studies for the midtown Connector and associated capital spending. That money would be far more constructively used elsewhere.

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. One more factor is the years-long mess created whenever SDOT undertakes a project of any size.
    The Connector would be a mini-WPPSS with delays and soaring costs.

  2. Remember, the Connector line was mostly a sop served up by Sound Transit, not a sensible transit plan. Originally the Sound Transit line to the north was to have a station on First Hill, serving hospitals and Seattle U. Big problem! The proposed station on Madison would be very deep, which raised cost and safety problems. So it was canceled, but to mollify critics, Sound Transit cooked up the idea of a streetcar serving Broadway and heading to Pioneer Square. The result of this desperation scheme would be a U-shaped streetcar line going from Broadway to Pioneer Square and then (by the Connector, still unfunded) along First Avenue and then jogging to connect with the Paul Allen/Amazon streetcar line from Westlake to South Lake Union. Now, a U-shaped line makes little sense; these lines usually extend north-south or east-west, with downtown as a hub.

    Time to cut bait!

  3. Not another rail vanity project! We need more large scale public transport that moves many bodies for many miles.

    4 riders per trip on the SLU line?

    So silly.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this! You’ve hit every point and this needs to go out to all of the new city Council people as soon as they are sitting in their chairs. I will never forget the day I got from the far north end to Saint Marks in about 18 minutes and then it was 45 minutes to get from Saint Marks to Swedish because I was trapped behind The Broadway Street car, which, of course had nobody on it. I would vote for ripping out all the trucks that are there. They’re terrible for bikes and terrible for existing businesses and for drivers.

    The street car is part of the trend by Seattle’s leaders to reach for shiny expensive technological solutions rather than simple human logic. Do they really think that downtown business can survive purely from bikes and bus and dwindling parking that can often be astronomically expensive if you can even find it? A follow up is needed on the drastic lack of parking for the new waterfront Park and the ferry. It seems that perhaps it’s OK to build a waterfront park that serves only people in 98122, downtown and cruise ships? So much for equity

  5. “The last thing we should do for our fragile downtown is to create new economic dead zones downtown.” Yes. That statement right there. Newly-elected council members: The streetcar proposal is unaccountable, in every respect. And yet, we still have this nonsensical proposal before us. Governing bodies need to understand how much Seattleites love our First Avenue — as it is, thank you. It is already a “culture connector”. It’ is a thing of beauty to saunter down this diverse, exciting avenue. I agree completely with David Brewster: It’s a bone thrown down.
    Newly-elected council members: Are you listening?

  6. What do boomers have against transit? If you think the pricetag of the streetcar (which would see ridership increase if it did NOT share lanes with cars and was in fact as fast as European cities) is high – have you bothered to look at the 99 Tunnel costs? Whoops!

    • With respect, baby boomers are generally fervent endorsers of rapid transit. It’s just THIS solution isn’t a solution, but a hindrance to efficient transport, would ruin an historic stretch of Seattle and is a waste of money.

  7. Sorry to disturb the anti-rail echo chamber, but the constant criticism is wildly misguided. We should have connected our separate streetcar lines a long time ago. Streetcars are proven in cities worldwide and there’s no reason similar can’t work here. Instead of opposition, help make it work: high frequency, ease of use, grade separation when possible, build with expansion in mind. Ridership won’t be an issue if we provide quality service.

    • Who are these commenters named “Whoops” and “Yes to Urban Transit”? You can choose to be anonymous. But if you feel that strongly, why not attach your name to your sentiments? This sentence should be further examined: What “works in cities worldwide” isn’t reason enough to expend hundreds of millions of dollars and ruin an historic stretch of Seattle. Where are the current studies, unique to Seatle, that show that this is workable? As the author of his article stated: “.. 2022, an average of only 4 riders per trip” on the South Lake Union line. For that, we should ruin lovely and vibrant First Avenue

    • I second Trish: For decades urbanists have been haranguing Seattleites for not getting with the program of “other cities” or “Europe.” The one-size fits top-down solutions betray an attitude of contempt and disrespect for the reality of what is actually here, and what works. In 2019 I wrote an esssay about the magic of an afternoon walk up First Avenue on the Winter Solstice. I gave myself the happy task of walking into every shop, and of buying some little thing in each place as a gift for family and friends. I spoke with people in every shop, customers, staff, asking questions, listening to stories. It was truly an experience of village— ending, sad-happy, at the Pike Place Market to say goodbye to the news stand on its last day.

      We need to make First Avenue safe, lovely and pedestrian-welcoming with re-opened shops and foot traffic. We need to keep every precious parking spot that the stores and businesses rely upon. The fairytale infrastructure projects like the street car end up time and time again being soulless failures, economically and socially. We get neither community nor economic benefits, except, as in the case of the blocks of dense corporate apartments, for the moneyed investors. And none of it is making us more like Paris.

  8. The streetcar would choke the Market’s operations by the elimination of most left turns, and load/unload spaces. It would put the Showbox out of business because the space for band buses in front would be eliminated.

    First Ave has been untouched by the city till now, and a unique mix of businesses that depend on access to it have grown up along there. This is a thriving section of downtown, so why would the Mayor seek to reverse that as part of his activation plan?

    The Market is our greatest cultural treasure, not just a place tourists visit, and it must continue to thrive economically. The Market was an excellent example of a community that was able to weather the pandemic and the challenges that still exist downtown. Why would the Mayor allow a project that would cause such great harm to the Market? Mayor Harrell, are you listening?

  9. David Brewster: yes, the ST board, led by Nickels, chose the streetcar mode to mitigate the cancelation of the First Hill Link station. We will miss that station forever. We would have been much better off with very frequent electric trolleybus service between East Aloha Street and Pioneer Square via First Hill. But ST did not chose the CCC, now CC streetcar. That has been due to the monomodal thinking of mayors Nickels, McGinn, and Murray. It is very disappointing to see that Director Spotts and Mayor Harrell has contracted the streetcar virus. It may have been brought to Seattle from Portland by Vulcan and Nickels.

  10. If we’re not going to connect the two segments, the city should discontinue the street cars completely and replace them with integrated electric buses or trolleys as Jim suggests. The current layout is the worst of all the options.

  11. Yes to urban transit: streetcars are good in Toronto and Europe; they have smart design. The SDOT streetcars are quite local; all three together would not be legible; they would be shaped like a bobby pin bent back on itself. They are one-car trains serving one-car platforms. Both existing lines have poor reliability. Seattle already has electric trolleybus lines; it already has many bus trips serving downtown Seattle. The CC Streetcar would be wasteful. The G Line will soon connect First Hill and 1st Avenue with six-minute headway. The capital, service hours, and right of way can be much better used.

  12. 300 million?? What a waste! Meanwhile I live in NE Seattle and my self and multiple other homes on the block have endured 4 devastating floods in our houses over the last 7 years. Why? Because the mainline in the street is too small and too old to handle the capacity of rain that we now get as well as the additional plumbing due to the single houses being knocked down and 3 or 4 being put up in their place. City engineers have told us that there are 386 streets in Seattle that have the same issue and ours is number 43 on the list in terms of priority and it will be at least 8 years before they can fix it because it’s “too expensive”. Every time this happens the city pays each home up to 20K in damages instead of fixing the problem. I also work at Pike Place Market and I know how this street car project has the ability to negatively affect the area. How about taking that 300 million and fixing the streets that the taxpayers live on? There are so many better uses of 300 million that this city could benefit from!

  13. Thanks for the thoughtful comments! There are many other reasons to oppose the project. Some responders mentioned the prevalent use of streetcars in Europe. But perhaps the most extensive study of streetcar safety in Europe, done by GDV/The German Insurance Group in 2018, covering 7,211 bus and streetcar accidents in 58 German cities between 2009 and 2011 revealed that streetcars were involved in 5 times as many deadly accidents and almost twice as many with serious injuries, over similar distances – mostly involving pedestrians. Note: this is the most pedestrian dense area of the city. Also note the signage along Pioneer Square prohibiting vehicles weighing over 10,000 pounds, due to subterranean infrastructure weakness. Note the streetcars weigh 60,000 pounds+. In addition, the right turns at Jackson and Stewart and 1st Avenue would hardly be manageable, and pose serious danger to pedestrians and cyclists. And on and on…

  14. When something — in this case the Market — is one of the few successes, don’t wreck it. And certainly not for a system that costs 300 or more million, is underutilized and doesn’t return much share of operating costs. Insanity.


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