There were no ribbons to cut or long speeches when the First Hill Streetcar shoved off from Pioneer Square for its inaugural passenger journey to Capitol Hill Saturday, but the rain-soaked launch delivered where it counts: regular service started without any major hiccups. Demand on the sunny Sunday that followed was large enough that officials pressed an extra car into service to deal with the crunch.
It’s been a long time coming. September 1, 1940 was the last day that streetcars carried passengers on Broadway and down Harvard Avenue.
Speaking inside a crammed train car at the Occidental Square stop Saturday, Mayor Ed Murray distanced himself from the FHSC project’s many delays but said he was excited to take part in the first trip to his home neighborhood on Capitol Hill.
The opening is the first in a series of massive transportation projects opening in 2016 around Capitol Hill including an April debut of the new 520 floating bridge and the March opening of light rail and the Capitol Hill Station facility which is expected to serve more than 10,000 riders a day at Broadway and Denny.
Across the street from the soon to open light rail station, Saturday’s start of service (CHS Coverage!) for the First Hill Streetcar marked a decade of work to get the line operational. In January 2006, the Sound Transit board authorized staff to begin planning for a possible new streetcar line after it had taken a First Hill light rail stop off the table because of the risk and expense it determined would be involved in creating the station.
Saturday’s first ever departure from Broadway and Denny
Seattle Department of Transportation officials said a free ride period will last for a couple weeks for the public to get acquainted with Seattle’s newest transit option. Six cars in colors representing the neighborhoods along the 2.5-mile route are now stopping at 10 stations from S Jackson and Occidental to Broadway and Denny Way, connecting Pioneer Square, the ID, Little Saigon, First Hill and Capitol Hill. Streetcars arrive every 10 to 15 minutes from 5 AM to 1 AM Monday through Saturday, and Sundays from 10 AM to 8 PM.
When fare service eventually starts, riders will purchase the $2.25 adult fare at station platforms using an ORCA card or ticket machines. 3,000 riders are expected to use the streetcar every day.
Even in light, Saturday morning traffic it took nearly 25 minutes to travel from Occidental Square to Broadway and Denny. With the streetcar sharing lanes with with vehicular traffic and on a route that comes sometimes perilously close to cars parked on the street near the tracks, expect slower times when the line is needed most during rush hours. Officials said they would continue to evaluate what to do about drivers parking in the train’s path. Part of the strategy will be to tow cars as quick as possible.
Sunday, riders also experienced what happens when failure in another mode of transit means a stoppage for the streetcar line. Around 5 PM, a two-car collision at Broadway and Yesler blocked the streetcar’s northbound line, bringing operations to halt until it was cleared within an hour.
— Thomas Ryan (@bites) January 24, 2016
The streetcar travels in the traffic lane sharing space with automobiles and buses. Most left turns along the route have been eliminated and signals are now coordinated to help keep the streetcar moving. From Pioneer Square to Broadway, the streetcar will operate with power from a single overhead wire. Hybrid batteries will provide power generated through “regenerative braking” on the mostly downhill return trip.
Ever since the streetcar made its first surprise late-night run on Broadway in May, anticipation had been building for announcement of a launch date. Saturday’s soft launch was revealed through a rather unceremonious series of events that unfolded last week, ending with a reserved confirmation by SDOT director Scott Kubly to a City Council committee on Friday.
CHS broke the news of an SDOT email alerting “community partners” of the soft launch. It was not the how those involved with planning a still-to-come grand opening celebration envisioned the streetcar rollout, but it seemed the many delays and pressure to get the line open from the public and City officials won the day over pomp and circumstance.
With plans for the streetcar stretching back three administrations at City Hall, the streetcar launch date has been elusive to say the least. The project and its managers were frequently scrutinized as complications with testing and manufacturing lead to shifting timelines. During his 90 second briefing on the streetcar to the City Council transportation committee Friday, Kubly said, “It’s a project that’s obviously much later than we would like it to be.”
Back in 2009, SDOT was targeting 2012 for a launch even as plans for a couplet route along Broadway and 12th Ave still was in the mix. (Interestingly, a poll of CHS readers at the time showed more support for the split routing). In fairness to City planners, CHS did report in 2008 that the original SDOT timeline was for the streetcar launch sometime between 2012 and 2016.
Images from the April 2013 groundbreaking, construction, and the occasional big announcement over the years.
In October 2010, SDOT secured $132.8 million from Sound Transit to begin work on the project. Construction of the streetcar tracks was eventually completed in 2014 along with the construction of the Broadway bikeway. That year problems with the streetcars Czech manufacturer Inekon started with a fire resistance issue. Contractual fines of $1,000 a day started to accrue when a backlog of parts pushed the streetcar delivery date into 2015. That prompted City Council members to grill Kubly about the holdups. A month later, the recently hired transit chief was in Europe to investigate for himself.
Once the streetcars made their trans-Atlantic journey to Seattle, the project was agin bogged down with longer-than-expected testing on the propulsion system designed specifically for the First Hill line. The system uses regenerative braking during downhill sections in order to power special batteries allowing streetcars to periodically detach from their overhead wires so they can travel alongside city busses. The system was developed for the First Hill Streetcar to reduce overhead wire conflicts with the Metro trolley buses.
Our first look at the rainbow assortment of new trolleys came in March, as Mayor Ed Murray and a flock of reporters made a 600-foot journey from the ID maintenance facility. In early December, SDOT held a First Hill Streetcar “safety day” to help riders and the community prepare for service operation of the line. Missing out on Saturday’s inaugural passenger run were the much maligned blue bollards that once lined the Broadway bikeway.
While a date hasn’t been set, City officials are still planning a celebration for the First Hill Streetcar with the mayor on hand to cut a ribbon and make a speech in Pioneer Square. There will be a lion dance. There will be pomp, etc. There will also be one more week of free service. After that, the First Hill Streetcar will need to stand on its own.
Well, not entirely on its own. The Broadway Streetcar is being planned as a half-mile, two-stop extension north from Denny that will also include an extended Broadway bikeway. Though there hasn’t been a public update in months and some proponents of the extension have quieted on the subject as the First Hill delays dragged on, construction of the two stops, the tracks, and the bikeway was being planned for later this year with an opening in 2017.
On the other end of things, plans move forward for a City Center Connector line from Pioneer Square through downtown where it would hitch up with the South Lake Union line. The plan for the connector line is expected to be complete later this year with construction possibly beginning before 2017 if funding works out. If all of that works out and people continue to ride, what follows could be another connection or four. But you had better start planning now if you want to ride there anytime soon.