Seattle Mulls Reviving Downtown Streetcar In Hopes Of Easing Gridlock

Jun 30, 2014

The Seattle City Council is scheduled to vote today on whether to bring back the downtown streetcar.  

The proposed line would traverse First Avenue and link to the existing South Lake Union line and the First Hill line, which is slated to open later this year. 

It’s not the first time a downtown trolley delivered passengers just steps away to the Pike Place Market.

“First streetcar was in 1884, was the city’s first streetcar line.  You could ride it for a nickel, and it went right down the center of Second Avenue,” said local historian, Alan Stein.

In those days, one of the biggest objections to the newfangled, brass-embellished trolleys was that they might frighten the horses. But over time the system grew.

“The whole downtown was networked with streetcars.  You can see pictures in the old days of all the wires that were used to power the electric ones. That was quite a challenge to get that whole grid put in down there,” Stein said.

That grid, of course, is now gone; by 1941, voters had decided against trolleys in favor of cars.

But Stein says what they didn’t foresee is that Seattle would grow to have the fourth worst traffic in the nation. Those streetcars were really handy for moving lots of people quickly, and that’s still the case, according to Ethan Melone with the city’s Department of Transportation.

“First Avenue has very little transit service today, but it’s really rich in destinations.  There’s nine million visitors a year to Pike Place Market, a similar number that are going to the ferry dock and yet we’re not really providing a lot of transit today to this corridor,” he said.

Melone says the new line will benefit tourists, but it’s part of a larger plan to make it easier for commuters to transfer from longer trips on light rail and buses to different parts of downtown. The cost of the new streetcar will run about $110 million. Proponents hope $75 million of that figure will come from federal funding.