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.