Mayor Ed Murray wants to extend Seattle’s streetcar. He recently released his proposed 2017 city budget, and tucked among funding for 200 new police officers, expanded homelessness services and more electric vehicle charging stations, is $45 million to build a downtown streetcar line between the city’s two existing, disconnected streetcars. The proposal has spurred excitement from some transit advocates and safety concerns from cyclists.
The $45 million would be combined with $30 million from Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities and a $75 million federal grant recommended for the project as part of President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget.
Seattle’s first streetcar line opened in 2007. It runs 1.3 miles from South Lake Union — home to Amazon’s new headquarters — into downtown. The second line opened in January of this year and runs 2.8 miles from Capitol Hill through First Hill and the International District into Pioneer Square. If funded, the 1-mile Center City streetcar will connect the two lines, creating a U-shaped streetcar route through the core of the city.
The city’s existing streetcars share right of way with car traffic, which often leads to major delays. The new line would have its own right of way down the center of 1st Avenue and Stewart Street.
“It’s the streetcar we should’ve built first,” says Shefali Ranganathan, Transportation Choices Coalition executive director. “It’s got everything going for it. It’s got federal money, it’s got its own right of way so it doesn’t get stuck in traffic, it’s connecting destinations.”
Some cyclists are concerned, however, that the additional streetcar line is coming without any new bike infrastructure. As is often the case in cities with streetcars, cyclists in Seattle have a fraught history with the transit mode because standard bike tires can get caught in the gaps in the tracks and cause crashes. In response to a spate of injuries from crashes on the South Lake Union streetcar tracks, a group of cyclists sued the city in 2010 for “knowingly allowing dangerous conditions.” A judge dismissed the suit in 2012.
The First Hill streetcar tracks have seen their share of recent crashes as well; the death in May of a cyclist was pinned on the hazard by at least one witness. The police investigation concluded it was operator error and there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude the tracks were a factor, but surveillance video shows she was riding in the center of the tracks just before she crashed.Seattle Department of Transportation spokesman Norm Mah says the Center City streetcar tracks are being designed to prevent cyclists from riding in between and across the tracks. There will be a small vertical “delineator” between the general travel lane and the streetcar lane that acts as a physical and visual barrier. The city also plans to use rough textured pavement between the tracks to discourage biking there. Intersections where bikes cross the tracks will be designated with bike boxes and signage.
In addition, the city is convening a safety task force that includes bike advocates to make recommendations on additional improvements. “The Bicycle/Streetcar Design Review Group originated from a need to have a more transparent conversation about the interactions of people riding bikes and streetcars,” Mah says.
The group will meet for the first time in a few weeks to look at the current proposal, which is at the 60 percent design stage.
Cascade Bicycle Club Policy Director Blake Trask says they have a few key safety priorities. (Disclosure: In 2014 and 2015, I did contract writing for Washington Bikes, a nonprofit Trask worked for that has since merged with Cascade.)
The first is that Stewart Street, the east-west connection between the Center City and South Lake Union lines, be an “all ages and abilities” corridor with protected bike lanes. The second is that key track crossings such as those at Pike Place Market and leading to the ferry terminal be designed to the highest safety standards.
In general, Trask says he’s hopeful about the possibility for a streetcar on 1st to calm things down.
“This is an opportunity to make 1st Ave. a smarter street. The streetcar is an opportunity to slow the street down and make it more of a shared space. It can be inviting and work for all modes at a human scale,” he explains.
If City Council approves funding for the streetcar this fall, construction will likely begin in 2018.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.