A bit of back story: From the latter part of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, Seattle’s dominant public transport option was an impressive system of both interurban tram lines and inner-city tram lines. By the 1940’s Seattle’s tram lines were non-existent, replaced by cars and buses.

Occidental Park Station before closure

In operation from May 29, 1982 to November 18, 2005, the 1.6 mi long George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line was Seattle’s first streetcar line to operate in the city since the disappearance of it’s trams on April 13, 1941. In classic style, it was not just a means of transport, but also a piece of nostalgia. Running from Chinatown to Belltown, along the waterfront, it was also an attraction akin to the streetcars on Market Street or the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Unfortunately this was not enough to save the line, and it was retired when construction of the Olympic Sculpture Park led to the destruction of the streetcar’s storage and maintenance barn.

The question has been asked since it’s closure. “What will happen with the Waterfront Streetcar line?” The simple answer: Nothing. Since the closure, SDOT/Metro have resigned to leaving the completed line unused. In it’s place, we have a metro bus wrapped to look like an old style trolley. It’s hideous.It seems that this is the way things will be for some time too. The city has confirmed that any reintroduction of the line would be held off until the waterfront redesign is under way, or until the viaduct comes down – in 2016.

Occidental Station after closure. Will the streetcar ever come?

Why is this the case though? The track is laid.  Stations are in place. The streetcars are sitting in storage about 1/2 mi away. With some rehab and a new maintenence facility the line could be operational in a seemingly short amount of time. If SDOT were willing to rehab the tracks, overhead wires, and stations, the line surely could be opening by the time the First Hill Line opens. With proper planning, this could create a link from Capitol Hill, through Little Saigon/Chinatown, Pioneer Square, Downtown, and Belltown. So, where would we start?

My hypothesis: By purchasing roughly 1/8 of the Qwest Field north parking lot, SDOT could build a barn that would facilitate both the opening of the First Hill Streetcar Line and the reintroduction of the Waterfront Streetcar Line by 2013. In choosing this spot, SDOT could also use money allocated for track extensions to proposed barn sites in Little Saigon to build the one block of track needed to connect the Waterfront Line to the future First Hill Line terminus near 2nd and King (eliminating the current Waterfront terminus at 5th and Jackson). Considering the barn would literally be across the street from the terminus, and only two blocks from the currently defunct Waterfront Line, it seems this would be what is known as “killing two birds with one stone.”

 

In purple is the proposed First Hill route and in gold is a partial view of the current Waterfront route with my proposed connection to the terminus on 2nd.

As we look toward a future where King Street Station is one of the three major multi-modal transfer points in the center city, this just makes sense. If SDOT were to scrap the two options in Little Saigon in lieu of purchasing a small portion of the gargantuan north lot and rehabilitation of a line that has already had millions spent on it, this would bring 4 types of rail connections to King Street – international passenger rail, regional commuter rail, metropolitan light rail, and inner-city tram lines. King Street Station would essentially function like any main rail station in most modern European cities.

It’s worth noting, that track gauge for the Waterfront Streetcar is the same as that which would be used for the First Hill line, but the overhead wire voltage is not. Voltage required for the Waterfront Line is 600 v and for the First Hill Line it will most likely be 750 (modern streetcar standard). As this is the case, a terminus configuration where both lines end at the same place, but on different tracks, would be the most prudent solution. I figure, a closure of 2nd Avenue between Jackson and King would create adequate space for this scenario. As I see it, there could be one central track station serving inbound First Hill trains and outbound Waterfront trains, with two outside stations serving inbound  Waterfront trains on the west side and outbound First Hill trains on the east side. From the terminus area tracks would run toward the maintenance barn and an area where trains can switch directions.

It’s hard for those of us outside of city government to say how much this reconfiguration would cost. Though this is the case, practically speaking, it doesn’t seem like it would be much more than the already proposed First Hill Line idea. Of course rehab on the Waterfront Line would probably bring the cost up a bit, but at the fraction of the cost of building an entirely different Waterfront Line in the future (as is the current plan).

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