75 years later, streetcars return to Capitol Hill

IMG_0313 conup_map1There 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.

Driver Tom did the honors Saturday for the first departure from Broadway and Denny

Driver Tom did the honors Saturday for the first departure from Broadway and Denny

Saturday’s first ever departure from Broadway and Denny

Hours and service schedules could vary during the free period. Visit seattlestreetcar.org or follow @TheStreetcar for updates. The NextBus app is also tracking the new line.

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.

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.

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16 thoughts on “75 years later, streetcars return to Capitol Hill

  1. Your coverage of the FHSC has been outstanding! You are really drinking Seattle Transit Blog’s milkshake. At this point I expect you guys to break transit news more than them.

  2. “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”

    ^THIS is maddening to me, and could be a big factor in commuters not using this option.

  3. Based on my multiple rides on Saturday, I suggest the long 25-minute travel times are mostly due to traffic signals. If the cars could command a green light when they approach a controlled intersection, travel time would get a significant cut.

    • Signal prioritization should be a threshold minimum for the First Hill streetcar. If DOT didn’t include signal prioritization in the system, somebody should be fired.

  4. I rode the streetcar toward Pioneer Square today around 10am, and it took about 25 minutes.

    I rode it back around 11:30 and it took about 26 minutes including a long delay at Rainier Jackson 14th intersection due to a signal problem.

    I have long been opposed to streetcars for a variety of reasons (comparative cost and inflexibility compared with buses chief among them), I can’t argue with the ride being smooth, and boarding at multiple doors (and lack of a payment upon boarding process) speeding up each stop. But at that overall travel time, combined with waiting perhaps 10 minutes for the car to get going… i’d say the street car is only marginally better than walking (when you have no packages and the weather is fine.)

    Other than the fact that this line shares the lane with traffic (which will make travel times unpredictable during peak traffic hours) the other major fault is the eastward jog toward 14th. Looping around from yesler and 12th to 12th and jackson took an inordinate amount of time. I can’t imagine what was gained by that 4 block detour. If you wanted to get the streetcar to Rainier for possible transfers. The better route would have just taken yesler to boren to 12th to jackson and probably would have shaved 6 minutes or more off the route.

    • Thanks for the report. I am opponent of them also as trolley buses have closed the advantages street cars once provided and this line was not constructed to take advantage of some of the greatest benefits streetcars offer. Investing millions into the ground when we have already done that with a different infrastructure- electric wires- seems foolish. Plus, hybrid trolleys can be rerouted unlike a streetcar which cannot leave the tracks. Another unforeseen/unaddressed repercussion was the closing of 14th St to southbound traffic. This has caused a major rerouting of auto traffic heading to I90 through neighborhoods instead of along an established route (14th) which is now closed. To me, this is unacceptible and it just doesn’t seem like their is any real analysis in the planning stage if there is a planning stage at all. With our limited funds for transportation efforts, we cannot tolerate the ‘it was never supposed to help with traffic’ excuses we hear. Why doesn’t Seattle do a wait and see on how this project is working before pushing for more streetcar solutions which may or may not be what the city needs? That said, I hope this line works better than expected and all those who can use for a commute, trip to the ID and Sodo do use it if it provides a viable option.

  5. Please tell me that the annoying bell ringing every time it approaches an intersection was just for launch and won’t continue in perpetuity. Can you imagine living along the line and having to hear that goddamn bell ringing all day, every day?

    • I live along the line in the ID. In my opinion the bell took some getting used to but it is certainly better sounding than some of the other noises coming from the street.

      • What’s the point of the bell? I live in Toronto, and we have a massive streetcar network – many lines carrying about 300,000 people per day. Our streetcars don’t ring a bell every time they approach an intersection. There is a bell the operator can ring, but they will only do so if there something like a pedestrian standing in the middle of the tracks not paying attention.

        I can’t for the life of me figure out what the purpose of the bell is.

  6. are we holding open the plan for the middle section (its not really a “line”) to plan for a waterfront route, or am I overthinking this?

  7. Sure.. there are streetcars and that’s great to provide people a new option of navigating the awful traffic in and around the city. However, this took FOREVER… because of the city government dragging their feet. Still, traffic continues to be awful and most absurdly downtown. Just try taking a trip down 5th avenue at 5pm.

    As for the City Center streetcar line, I would strongly suggest that the organization that constructs this does so asap to maximize the value of the streetcar system and provide a solid value-add to the Link Light Rail line. Doing so will optimize the options that are currently before us in order to leave the car at home more often.

  8. It’s mid-day Tuesday, and I just returned from driving down Broadway from Union to Thomas. There was a streetcar ahead of me and, as predicted, this resulted in about a 2-3 block backup of cars. If this happens during non-peak hours, what will it be like at rush hour?

    Oh well….time to think of alternate routes.