Updated Monday, November 12, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Right after the South Lake Union streetcar opened in late 2007, to holiday shopping crowds and colored balloons, the Seattle City Council mapped out a web of citywide rails.
Then the issue went dormant. Streetcars ran nearly empty at first. Voters last year trounced a car-tab fee that would have included money to plan more routes.
The first line is now attracting 2,750 passengers per weekday, another line is under construction on First Hill, and the city's dream of a multiline network is resurging.
In the next three years, the city might spend as much as $10 million to study or design streetcar lines, if Mayor Mike McGinn and the council follow through with budget proposals adopted Friday.
At least four routes would be examined — Eastlake, Ballard, downtown, and north Broadway, all once served by streetcar tracks before the citywide system was abandoned in 1941.
A fifth corridor, on Madison Street, will be considered for bus-rapid transit, because the route is seen as too steep for rails.
But at this point, the city is plunging into studies without a broader philosophy about which problem a new trackway is supposed to solve.
Move commuters efficiently the last mile to their jobs or big transit hubs?
Encourage shoppers to linger?
Serve corporate and medical campuses?
Without a clear mission, Seattle risks wasting money on overlapping public processes, or designs that fail to improve mobility enough to justify the spending. The $133 million First Hill Streetcar project under construction now will create an innovative Broadway bike lane, but the trains will be slowed because they'll run in general traffic lanes.
If the goal is to serve tourists or promote economic development, you might run trains in mixed traffic with frequent stops.
If the goal is to improve commuter or crosstown travel, you would give streetcars their own lanes and have fewer stops — like King County Metro's new RapidRide bus lines.
But at this point, the city hasn't declared what its service expectations will be, or even which routes to improve first. McGinn says that's the point of the studies, to give leaders facts to inform their future choices.
Councilmember Tom Rasmussen has settled on one basic standard: The Transportation Committee chairman says he's not willing to spend millions on streetcars unless the ride is better than the transit we already have.
"I think it has to have exclusive right of way, period," he said.
Rasmussen finds the South Lake Union line, two-thirds of which runs in mixed traffic, "painfully slow." Tacoma Link, using downtown medians, he noted, "seems to move faster, load better."
Creating better transit doesn't come easy or cheap on narrow Seattle streets, at about $50 million a mile, if no bridge retrofits or road widening were needed.
McGinn said the University District, Ballard and Madison corridors are busy enough to justify trains' higher capacity and cost, compared with just adding buses. Proponents point to "rail bias" — some people will switch to transit, or ride more often, if a train is more comfortable or easier to use than a bus. Along Eastlake, city consultant Nelson/Nygaard predicts 25,000 daily trips on rail in 2030 compared with 20,000 on bus-rapid transit or 15,000 on conventional buses.
More than 40 percent of downtown workers arrive by transit, and 25 percent carpool, bike, walk or telecommute, according to Commute Seattle, a nonprofit.
"We're adding jobs downtown, our local economy is growing, and we have to use our rights of way more efficiently to get people to go where they want to go," McGinn said.
McGinn says streetcars would connect neighborhoods to each other and to major Sound Transit stations in a way that doesn't exist now. He favors separate rights of way if space is available, but isn't as adamant as Rasmussen.
"I think we need to analyze things and not prejudge," he said. "I think that's the power of doing the studies."
The streetcar corridors
The 2011 Transit Master Plan proposes something new for Seattle, a so-called "rapid streetcar," which adds capacity and speed by using two-car or extended articulated trains that often run in their own lanes.
McGinn has long admired Portland, where streetcars have some of their own downtown lanes, and the MAX Yellow Line light rail that serves north-end neighborhoods with stops in street medians.
Some of the Seattle study money comes from the federal government and Sound Transit, leaving $5.4 million to be paid by Seattle. For perspective, the transportation operations budget is $318 million for 2013.
Besides streetcars, the studies will look at bus rapid transit, which tries to emulate trains' frequency and roominess.
A view of the corridors:
Sound Transit in 2005 nominated fast-growing Ballard as a station site for high-capacity transit. The agency has offered $2 million (mostly collected in Seattle) for studies. Sound Transit says it's required to plan for service "operating principally on exclusive rights of way," while the city is adding $800,000 to study streetcars that might mix with other traffic.
Trains might cross the Fremont Bridge, or a new bridge could be built just to the west, as the line continues to South Lake Union. For now, the council chose not to spend the mayor's proposed $500,000 to study a new bridge until 2015.
A huge question is whether the South Lake Union trackway would need to be realigned, or declared off-limits to car traffic, so the one-mile segment doesn't become a bottleneck for incoming north-end streetcars.
McGinn proposed $2 million in 2013-14 to study an extension from South Lake Union across the University Bridge, perhaps all the way to Roosevelt.
The Greater University Chamber of Commerce reiterated its support last week, pointing to rapid growth in jobs and housing.
The council voted Friday to delay the study until 2014-15, to allow a shift of $1 million in 2013 to street projects that give buses an advantage over other traffic.
Chris Leman, president of the Eastlake Community Council, worries about streetcars passing through without serving the neighbors. With the roadbed only about 50 feet wide, any new transit-only lanes would threaten small businesses and parking, he said.
Only 15 years ago, King County Metro Transit spent $19 million, mostly in federal money, to string trolley bus wires over Eastlake, replacing diesel buses with cleaner electric vehicles.
"If you've got limited money and you want to mitigate global warming, you wouldn't want to spend $40 million a mile to electrify a line that's already electrified," says Jack Whisner, who was on a citizen committee reviewing the plan.
The University Bridge and an over-water section of Fairview Avenue North would need to be strengthened for streetcars, said a 2006 Eastlake streetcar study by Parsons Brinckerhoff.
A few years ago the city leaned toward putting streetcars on First Avenue, a location popular with tourists that has less car traffic than other streets. A second option has emerged, to cross downtown using Fourth Avenue northbound and Fifth Avenue southbound.
That would be tough because new tracks must vie for space with cars, curbside parking, and a future separated bikeway the city wants to add. Who will yield?
The feds have offered $900,000 for studies, and the City Council added $1.8 million, in hopes of going beyond route comparisons to actual engineering.
McGinn last month announced federal grants of $1.75 million, which will be combined with $350,000 in city funds to design a half-mile project. It would extend the 2014 First Hill line north to cover the entire Broadway retail district by 2016. The $22 million construction cost would come from undetermined sources, including nearby landowners.
Cable cars ran from 1890 to 1940 on this hilly street, considered too steep for rail. Now the city is looking at bus-rapid transit, presumably with transit lanes. New-generation trolley buses, used in Vancouver, B.C., have low floors and more space than Seattle's fleet.
Study costs are budgeted at $1 million — for a street where trolley buses have run for decades, serving a large clientele that includes students and hospital workers. Just three years ago, Metro published a trolley-bus network plan, then it spent $850,000 in 2010 studying costs and benefits to replace its aging fleet.
Metro and Seattle currently lack money to refurbish Madison Street, but a project probably would compete for federal subsidies.
A council briefing paper conjectures that at least $650 million is needed for engineering, construction and buying vehicles in all five corridors.
Construction money might come in a 2016 or 2020 "Sound Transit 3" ballot measure, or an increase in city car-tab taxes, federal grants, or some yet-unknown source approved by the state Legislature. By that point, the 2013-15 studies may or may not be current.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom.