Mayor’s budget funds downtown streetcar, will form bike/streetcar safety review board

The existing design creates new hazards on Stewart Street.

The existing design creates new hazards on Stewart Street.

Mayor Ed Murray’s proposed budget would fund the Center City Connector streetcar, providing $45 million over the next half decade to match Federal grant funds and funds from City Light and Public Utilities for relocation work, Seattle Transit Blog reports.

As we reported in depth back in June, we have some serious bike safety concerns about the current plans for this streetcar line, which runs on First Ave and Stewart Street downtown to connect the existing South Lake Union and First Hill lines.

The good news is that SDOT is convening a design review group with advocates and members of the Bicycle Advisory Board to address bike/streetcar safety along the new line. And they are already looking at some improvements to address some of the biggest bike safety concerns.

CCCOH6BoardsALLFINAL-operatingFor example, the streetcar would run in exclusive lanes down the center of First Ave. And unlike on Jackson, those streetcar lanes would have cobbles to prevent people driving and biking on top of the rails. But so far there is no talk of separated bike lanes adjacent to the rails like on Broadway, so people driving and biking would need to share one lane in each direction.

Perhaps a bigger concern is Stewart Street. Current designs show no bike lanes on Stewart, which is a major bike route that runs diagonal across the street grid from Eastlake Ave to First Ave.

There’s a lot of work to do to make the streetcar plans safe for people on bikes. But there are opportunities for this investment to make improvements to bike access. Imagine direct and safe two-way bike access on Stewart Street that connects with the city’s planned (but always delayed) downtown bike network, for example. Today, this area is a stressful mess, but with an efficient streetcar, safe bike lanes and planned rapid bus improvements it could be the nexus of multimodal travel downtown. Of course this only works if the city gets to work building that network.

And imagine if this funding included a commitment to go back and fix dangerous elements and missed opportunities of the other lines, such as Jackson Street.

We are eager to support a good streetcar project, and would even be enthusiastic boosters of a plan that includes serious safety improvements for people biking near downtown streetcar lines. But the project cannot add new dangers the way the South Lake Union and First Hill Streetcar lines did. We’ll be watching closely as this project moves forward.

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40 Responses to Mayor’s budget funds downtown streetcar, will form bike/streetcar safety review board

  1. Anton says:

    A Stewart bike lane would be great.

    Also making it easier to take bikes on the train than is on Link today. BART in California had an interesting solution (albeit controversial):

  2. Capitol Hillian says:

    The First Hill and SLU line are still injuring people all the time! SDOT hasn’t even fixed those yet never mind figuring out how to mitigate the expansion…

    • Law Abider says:

      In keeping with the semantics of this blog (re: accidents->collisions/crashes), I would have to protest your accusation of the FHSC and SLUT injuring people. They are inanimate objects and thus are incapable of injuring people.

      The correct terminology would be “People are injuring themselves all the time on the First Hill and SLU line!”. Hopefully, with the correct terminology, this will cause bike/rail crashes to plummet!

  3. (Another) Tom says:

    There is no such thing as a good streetcar project. Our transportation dollars would be better spent on almost anything else.

    All the cost and inflexible infrastructure of a train with none of the benefits. Actually gets stuck in traffic more often than a bus since it can’t go around poorly parked / stalled vehicles. Oh, and the tracks will continue to contribute to cyclists getting hurt and killed. Totally worth it for that extra bit of whimsy.

    Besides tourists who exactly is going to use this thing? The light rail would be faster and more reliable and essentially already connects the two spurs. Let’s leave bad enough alone and not make it worse.

    • Transit Rider says:

      The light rail is indeed faster and connects the termini, but does not serve the area in between. The First Hill line was designed as a consolation prize for the neighborhood after their risky underground light rail station was cancelled.

      This project is probably as good as you’ll get with a streetcar line, since it’s connecting and interlining/overlapping the two existing services into somewhat of a network. Plenty of professionals use both streetcars already (Amazonians on the SLU Line, hospital workers on the FH Line), so there’s more than just tourists on them. A bus would do just as good, but it’s harder to fight the political battle for protected transit lanes when it isn’t on rails.

      • NoSpin says:

        The area in between the termini of the two existing streetcars is more than adequately served by buses – and the LINK, which has a station at University.

        The fact that “plenty of professionals use both streetcars already” is totally irrelevant, since those same riders could be better served by buses on the same route that would have cost less (no expensive tracks to lay) and operate more efficiently (able to move around/through traffic versus being stuck on a fixed route).

      • Bruce Nourish says:

        “A bus would do just as good, but it’s harder to fight the political battle for protected transit lanes when it isn’t on rails.”

        This is simply bullshit. Seattle has far more miles of street ROW given over to the mostly-exclusive use of buses than it does streetcars or light rail. Those miles were obtained far more cheaply and serve far more people than any of our streetcar lines. If you want to argue for the downtown streetcar, or streetcars generally, argue for it based on facts.

        Well-meaning transit advocates spewing prattle able how this, that, or the other thing just can’t be done with buses, so we just have to build far more expensive rail alignments, are a big reason our bus networks fail to live up to their potential. Please don’t be one these own-goalers.

    • Anton says:

      Yes, there is. Link on MLK is exactly that – a well done streetcar. And the Center City Connector will be built to the same standard – since it will be center running, no other vehicle will ever be in its path and it won’t get stuck in traffic. Parked vehicles will have zero relation to its operation. Same for stalled cars as they wouldn’t be where the streetcar is anyways.

      And also since the tracks are in the center cyclists will be quite separated in the GP lane. The only time a cyclist has to be careful is when turning onto 1st if it involves crossing the tracks.

      • NoSpin says:

        LINK on MLK is neither a ‘streetcar’ nor ‘well done.’ It runs on the median in a dedicated right-of-way and is thus not a streetcar, while the fact that it is at-grade makes it the weakest link in the system – causing the whole thing to shut down several times a year due to impacts with cars and/or pedestrians.

        The City Center Connector will have cars and pedestrians crossing its path – and yes, it will get stuck in traffic when vehicles fail to clear an intersection and ‘block the box.’ To say that “no other vehicle will ever be in its path and it won’t get stuck in traffic” is to deny the reality of Seattle traffic.

    • RDPence says:

      I’m totally sympathetic to arguments against new streetcar lines, except for this one. The Center City Connector takes two stub-end streetcar lines and connects them together, thus making a much more useful single line.

      • RossB says:

        It won’t be that useful. It would form a giant ‘U’, which means that it will never make sense for riders to take the train very far. There are several stops along the way where you can get off, walk, and get back on the tram. Heck, one of those exists right now, as the streetcar makes this ridiculous (and very time consuming) button hook on 14th.

        Besides, you could achieve the same thing with a bus. You could straighten that button hook, run on 12th, and otherwise make the line much faster. But it still is a giant ‘U’. You may have noticed that no bus route looks like that, nor are there are any proposals for one. It is just a bad idea.

        Side note: this is my favorite transit map of the area:

      • RDPence says:

        Yes, if SLU and FH streetcars weren’t already there, it would be better to use buses, and I wouldn’t be advocating for the Center City Connector streetcar. But that’s not where we are. Better to connect two relatively useless stub ends and make a real streetcar line out of them. And you can’t do that with a bus.

    • RossB says:

      I agree. I think it is telling that Seattle is already moving away from streetcars, with the exception of this project. For example, the Roosevelt/Eastlake project could have easily been done as a streetcar, but they choose BRT instead. It is flat enough, and a streetcar would actually connect into the existing network. But they were smart enough to realize that you gain nothing with a streetcar, and end up losing a lot.

      The only reason this is proposed as a streetcar is inertia. The two pieces are terrible, and the thought is that if you connect them, you actually get something valuable out of the deal. There is some logic to that — both lines are flawed and connecting them will make them better. But no better than a bus line. We should just pull out the rail, and give up. Stop putting good money after bad. Every agency — every organization — makes mistakes. We made one in building a streetcar system in a city that is really poorly suited for it (and then compounded the mistake by using streetcars that are no bigger than our buses). Pull out the rail, sell everything and put in BRT bus service.

    • RossB says:

      >> A bus would do just as good, but it’s harder to fight the political battle for protected transit lanes when it isn’t on rails.

      Sorry, not true. Neither streetcar line has much in the way of transit lanes, yet Madison BRT is going to have 90% protected transit lanes. The only part of Madison BRT that won’t be protected is the tiny section to the east, where experts say it isn’t needed. The corridor has way more to do with whether an area gets transit lanes or not. If the Roosevelt BRT project was a streetcar, it would be no different (it might be worse). The reason that more transit lanes weren’t added is because space is limited, and it is a major bicycle corridor. Solving that problem would require spending a lot more money, and they simply don’t have the budget for it. If a streetcar was chosen, this would actually make the situation worse, not better.

      Oh, and from a functionality standpoint, a bus would not be “just as good”. It would be much better.

    • RossB says:

      >> Link on MLK is exactly that – a well done streetcar.

      Sure, but there is a huge difference, and it has nothing to do with transit lanes. Link has very big trains. A four car set (the maximum) carry around 6 times the number of people than a big bus. This means that you can save money by not running the trains as often.

      But the streetcars aren’t any bigger than our buses. Thus you have removed the one advantage that trains have over buses (capacity). Everything else that makes Link a good form of transportation (transit lanes, off board payment, level boarding) can be applied to a bus. It will be applied to the Madison BRT project, which will open in a couple of years.

      Our streetcars have none of the advantages of streetcars around the world (Toronto, Berlin, Paris, etc.) but they have every disadvantage. Building infrastructure for them is expensive, routes are limited because of our hills, extending the route requires a major financial commitment, they can’t avoid temporary (stalled car) or long term (construction) obstacles, and of course, they are a major hazard to bikes.

      This really is a bad idea, and extending it is just putting good money after bad. It is crazy to think that we are in the process of building very good BRT infrastructure, but no one wants to admit that the streetcar idea was really stupid.

  4. Scott says:

    You may be interested to know the latest Roosevelt/Eastlake BRT plans include a two-way PBL on Stewart from Boren Avenue (and possibly further east) to 6th Avenue, where the streetcar tracks turn onto Westlake. See here:

    This shops four blocks short of the 2nd Avenue PBL. Wouldn’t we want those to connect? Yes, we would! The streetcar project could be a perfect reason to extend the Stewart PBL further. It would probably take away another car lane, narrowing the roadway to one lane between 2nd and 6th, and that would probably impact the many buses that use Stewart in that area, but I think if we’re serious about Vision Zero that’s the only design that will work.

    • Josh says:

      That drawing for Stewart is just a concept, but the cycletrack looks skinny. I realize it’s not working drawings, just a concept, but FHWA says the bike lane marking is 40″ wide, and scaling off that, the cycletrack lanes don’t look wider than 5 feet at most.

      I thought the 2014 BMP update adopting resolution was supposed to make it mandatory for new facilities to meet or exceed local, state, and national guidance as well as standards — shouldn’t the lanes of a cycletrack be at least six feet wide anywhere in the city, and especially on what’s expected to be a busy downtown route?

      I appreciate the gesture to do “something”, but when we’re making infrastructure that’s probably going to last decades, shouldn’t we do it right?

    • Law Abider says:

      Something is going to have to give here. Stewart can’t and won’t ever be one lane (until cars are obsolete), I don’t care how well wishing people are. It’s a main arterial into downtown Seattle.

      Either the streetcar will run in a mixed traffic lane or the cycle track will not be extended past 6th.

    • NoSpin says:

      “The streetcar project could be a perfect reason to extend the Stewart PBL further.”

      OR, they could just extend the Stewart PBL further WITHOUT investing millions of dollars into a worse-than-any-other-tranist-option streetcar?

      The “perfect reason” to extend the Stewart PBL further is because it’s the right thing to do.

  5. Gary says:

    I liked the waterfront street car. The 1st ave one, the SLUT, the Broadway/Jackson lines not so much. You can pretty much walk faster than any of the existing lines. Either it’s off peak and the wait times eat the savings by riding, or it’s peak traffic and traffic and the lights hold up the street cars.

    Basically adding more surface congestion won’t solve the transit mess.

    As a tourist, hey, street cars are fun to ride. You are sure it isn’t going to North Bend and drop you off on the I90 flyover in Issaquah when you realize you are really really on the wrong bus. As a parent, the cars are great entertainment on a rainy weekend. Transit holiday! Ride the monorail, the light rail, the ferry, a bus! All for less than a trip to Disney land!

    As a cyclist, the tracks are a menace. Whether they force the cars to pass too closely because there isn’t room, the track gap that eats wheels and tosses you into the street, or the wet steel tracks on a curve.

    The two lines that were built were a mistake. Adding a connector won’t fix that.

    • Wells says:

      The question to ask is are alternative connector routes being fairly considered?
      Seattle bicyclers still seem too willing to accept ineffective and unsafe infrastructure as if Sdot and ST heads don’t know any better.
      I DO NOT support the 1st Ave Streetcar connector plan.
      I DO suggest alternative routes always left completely disregarded.
      Here are these alternatives in short:

      A single-track LOOP: From Westlake on Steward or Lenora, then turn south on 1st or 2nd Ave, then turn east on Pike and north on 6th to Westlake. Advantage: CURB STOPS, stops also serves buses; leaves room for bike lanes. A 2nd Ave route simplifies the left turns and leaves rail off 1st Ave.

      Or: A streetcar couplet on 4th/5th Aves to Jackson. Advantages: CURB STOPS; East/west turn options at Jackson – turn west to the Waterfront Streetcar line which looks okay laid out in median with the turn on Yesler.

      Lastly, to complement this design, I propose new trolleybus models on 1st and for hillclimbs. Question: How old are the new trolleybus chassis designs? Answer: 20 years. Brand New trolleybuses on old chassis designed for diesels closer to 40 years old. Billy Bryant wants Buffet’s BNSF to haul coal/oil/gas to brand new export facilities, no problem. You expect more from your space age boys?
      Their latest big space idea: solar panels in orbit and microwave beam-it-down Space Power! Ooooo! Awesome! That’s even more amazing that the amazing hyperloop! And don’t get me started on STUPID self-driving robocar nonsense.

      • NoSpin says:

        OR… a bus line on any of the routes you suggest, which wouldn’t require tearing up the streets to install dangerous rails for an inefficient tram to run on?

    • Wells says:

      NoSpin, thanks, but the Lake Union Streetcar line must extend into town to increase patronage and justify operation. This simplest LOOP proposal is a ‘single-track’ leaving more room for even better bike lanes. Or, a 4th/5th rail couplet to get through town faster and the Jackson pick: west to Coleman Dock or east through Yesler Terrace First Hill hospital row. Just saying a bus is better, doesn’t make it so. Today’s buses are engineering pieces of crap. Even the new trolleybus chassis are designed for standard diesel. Paratransit Van technology is basic 1970’s.

  6. bill says:

    Bike haters rejoice! Downtown will soon be unrideable. Oh, sorry about the broken down/blocked streetcar obstructing traffic.

    • Law Abider says:

      Downtown is already unrideable, I’ll take streetcar tracks over the insane downtown drivers any day of the week. At least streetcar tracks are predictable and easily avoidable.

      • Vondy says:

        Unrideable? Utterly subjective tosh. I ride downtown five days a week. I don’t mind street cars (delightful predictability), but poor driver’s have yet to drive me from the streets. I’ve had more close calls going through West Seattle than I have downtown.

      • Law Abider says:

        @Vondy: I was more hyperboling bill’s hyperbolic statement. I too ride downtown (and over train tracks) on a daily basis. I wouldn’t recommend it for the occasional cyclist, but any rider with a hint of experience should be able to navigate downtown. Streetcar tracks won’t change this.

      • bill says:

        Tracks are hardly unavoidable when you have to cross them. Unlike most RR crossings a lot of our streetcar tracks are on significant grades. Crossing them perpendicularly exposes you to slipping on the side-slope.

        Tracks are also unavoidable if you deviate from your normal routes and find yourself in a track-infested part of the city.

  7. William says:

    I think we just have to face it: We have a mayor who is good at schmoozing but clueless when it comes to making sensible decisions that will lead to a better city. There is just no reason for this infrastructure

  8. Peri Hartman says:

    The first thing I noticed is how well it connects to the existing streetcar and link rail. Now, why is it that when designing bikeways, the “ends don’t end” where there is a useful connection to another bikeway?

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  10. NoSpin says:

    It’s pathertic that they’re taking credit for forming a “bike/streetcar safety review board.” They wouldn’t need to do that if they weren’t sabotaging our streets with rails.

  11. RossB says:

    It is inevitable that there will be competition for space as bikes, cars and transit all fight over the same land. We saw this with the Roosevelt BRT project. The bus will have to share space with cars, so that enough room is made for bike lanes. I personally think this is a worthy trade-off, given the importance of that bike corridor and the available money.

    Streetcar projects have similar conflicts, but additional ones. The biggest is probably an acute angled crossing. It is pretty obvious that this has plenty. They are all over the place.

    Dealing with them means something has to give. You will sacrifice transit mobility or bike safety. You will certainly spend a lot more money (which means sacrificing more transit mobility and bike safety). I think it is time we abandon the myth about streetcars, and start talking about how best to dismantle them in Seattle.

    • Josh says:

      Not to say it’s a good idea, but the city could sacrifice bike mobility, too — all it takes is a majority of the City Council to agree streetcars tracks are dangerous for cyclists, and they can close any affected street in the city to bicycles.

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