Earlier this summer the Seattle City Council denied funding to study a streetcar bridge across the Lake Washington Ship Canal. For the first time, a majority of councilmembers seriously questioned the misplaced priority the city has put on streetcars over light rail or enhanced bus service.
An urban streetcar, like the one that runs to South Lake Union, is a lot like a large bus on rails, though it offers a smoother ride. But an urban streetcar has disadvantages, too: It can only go where there are tracks. While buses can be rerouted to avoid accidents, road construction and other obstacles, if there’s an accident on a streetcar line, the whole line is likely to be shut down.
In addition, a streetcar line is more expensive to operate than a comparable bus or trolley bus, which uses rubber-tired coaches powered by overhead electric wires, because of the capital and maintenance costs of the infrastructure. Streetcars also require specialized storage and maintenance facilities. Given the little benefit that comes with the extra cost, why has the city invested so much in planning for urban streetcars? And why is Sound Transit building its own streetcar line from the International District to Capitol Hill?
Supposedly streetcars attract more riders than comparable bus service because they are high tech and more comfortable. This is particularly true for people who think that riding the bus, the default mode of transport for poor people, is dangerous and unpleasant. Rail lines are said to attract business and housing investment because they seem more permanent than bus lines. Then there’s the “world-class city” argument: that a network of streetcar lines will give Seattle the appearance of a great city and thus will attract tourists and jobs. While these arguments can’t be entirely discounted — image does sell — they are made in a vacuum, rather than considering the effects of making a comparable investment in bus service, including building on the potential of the existing trolley bus network.
Consider Sound Transit’s streetcar line, now under construction. This line was a consolation prize for First Hill when Sound Transit decided it couldn’t build a Link station there. Construction has significantly impacted businesses on Jackson Street for months, closed down arterials and rerouted bicycle traffic on a major bicycle corridor. The streetcar won’t be any faster than a trolley bus operating on the same line; the trolley wire was already there, for the most part, and there’s already a maintenance base south of downtown where the trolleys are stored and repaired when they go out of service. All that was needed was the money to operate additional service on that Metro bus route and to increase the trolley bus fleet.
While the current trolley fleet can only run where there’s trolley wire, the new trolley buses that Metro is buying have batteries, which allows them to run a few blocks off-wire. This means that the new electric trolleys will have the same “green” power source as streetcars but won’t get blocked by local power outages, accidents or construction, and they don’t require extensive roadwork to lay tracks. If the route needs to be relocated a few decades in the future — say, by some major change in the urban landscape — modifications will be relatively cheap.
Trolleys may not look as sleek or modern as streetcars. However, just as Metro repainted buses to mimic streetcars when the waterfront streetcar shut down, it could repaint trolleys to look like streetcars; it could change the seating inside to a “rail-like” seating, as it’s done on Rapid Ride buses; it could place signage along trolley routes to provide the sense of a permanent line; and it could do all this at a fraction of the cost of building and operating a streetcar line. If it’s image we’re looking for, we could still get it at a fraction of the cost.
The First Hill line is a Sound Transit project, but similar considerations apply to the city’s projected streetcar lines. With the exception of a new bridge over the ship canal, which would add transit capacity, there is nothing in the city’s plan that is more cost effective than extending the existing trolley network.
If city leaders want to spend money on transit in Seattle, they should build on the relationship the city has already developed with Metro in order to improve bus service. Good transit service is crucial for our city. Given limited budgets, the money we spend should be stretched as far as possible, not wasted on building urban streetcars.