After a 76-year absence, streetcars return to Seattle's First Hill on January 23, 2016.

  • By Nicholas Deshais
  • Posted 9/25/2019
  • Essay 20867
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On January 23, 2016, streetcars return to Seattle's First Hill after a 76-year absence. The 2.5-mile streetcar line marks the end to a streetcar-less Capitol Hill, which last saw the service on September 1, 1940. The form of transportation made a return to Seattle in 2007, when the city began operating its first modern streetcar, the 1.3-mile South Lake Union line. The city's second line, the $134 million First Hill streetcar, was conceived in 2006 when the Sound Transit Board abandoned plans to include a stop for the University Link light rail on First Hill due to high cost. An anticipated 2012 launch for the streetcar was unmet, and the project faced further delays as the streetcar manufacturer dealt with fire safety design problems. The official 2016 launch is only confirmed to the city council the day before it runs, when it draws unexpectedly large crowds.

Inaugural Journey

It was raining when Seattle's First Hill streetcar made its hastily announced, inaugural voyage from Occidental Square on January 23, 2016. No long-winded speeches were given, and no ribbon cut to mark the end of a 76-year absence of streetcar service in the central neighborhood. It was about time. The Seattle Department of Transportation said pressure to get the line in operation "won the day over pomp and circumstance" ("75 Years Later ..."). Streetcars had last run in the Capitol Hill area on September 1, 1940, and the plan to bring them back had been hatched a decade before.

Any doubts of the line's popularity were dispelled the following day, as an extra car was put into service to deal with the crowds, who rode the 2.5-mile route between its 10 stations from Occidental Square to its terminus at Denny Way and Broadway Avenue.

The First Hill streetcars were the latest iteration of a conveyance Seattleites had known for generations. Horse-drawn streetcars began service in the city in 1884, quickly followed by a cable-car line in 1887, and electric streetcars in 1889. At its peak, Seattle's electric streetcar service had 26 routes and 410 cars. Left behind by motorists and bus technology, and burdened by debt, the Municipal Street Railway ran its last streetcar along 8th Avenue NW in Ballard on April 13, 1941.

Nostalgia for Streetcars

Decades passed and commuters were again drawn to streetcars. The Portland, Oregon streetcar, which began the revival of American streetcar service in 2001, inspired Seattle to build the 1.3-mile South Lake Union line and began service in 2007 with visions for a citywide system.

The First Hill line would be the city's second line, but it was conceived only after the Sound Transit board abandoned plans to build a deep-underground station for a University Link light rail stop in the neighborhood in July 2005. The agency's planners estimated that eliminating the station would cut $350 million from the plan, significant savings for the $1.85 billion light rail project, and make it easier to secure federal grant funding.

Joni Earl (b.1953), CEO of Sound Transit, called elimination of the stop "clearly unwelcome," but said it was necessary ("Drop First Hill ..."). King County Executive Ron Sims (b. 1948), a Sound Transit board member, recommended building a streetcar in its place, and the agency began planning for the new streetcar line in 2006.

The First Hill streetcar project was included in the Sound Transit 2 plan, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in November 2008. A month later, the Seattle City Council voted to approve a $685 million, five-route streetcar network, which included the First Hill line.

Before work could begin, the route had to be chosen. SDOT offered a number of alternatives by breaking the proposed route into three segments and offering two to three options per segment. Three community meetings showed community support for running along 12th Avenue, and neighborhood and business groups preferred Boren Avenue. SDOT chose to use Broadway, saying it was the least expensive.

The Broadway alignment was approved by Mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959) and the city council in May 2010. It would run south through Capitol Hill and First Hill to Yesler Way, then east toward 14th Street and south to Jackson Street, where it would head west through the Chinatown-International District and finally to the Union Station light-rail stop near Occidental Square. Construction began in 2012, and the first tracks were laid in the summer of 2012 on Yesler and Broadway. While working on the Broadway segment, work crews uncovered dozens of wooden railroad ties, remnants of the old streetcar line and a reminder of the not-so-distant streetcar past.

Ready and Waiting

In 2014, construction was complete and the tracks were ready. The streetcars, however, were not, as troubles began to mount for the manufacturer, Inekon Trams. The Czech Republic-based company said it was hobbled by changing national fire regulations in the U.S., and Seattle's request to build the vehicles with a powerful enough battery to run off-wire and avoid conflicts with the King County Metro trolley bus wires in the Little Saigon neighborhood. Seven of the $3.7 million streetcars were due by October 6, 2014. With fines of $1,000 for each day of delay, the company racked up $418,000 in late fees. To spur a hasty completion, SDOT crafted a new deal with Inekon that would forgive some of the fines if cars were delivered sooner.

As the cars started arriving in Seattle, acceleration and brake testing of the streetcars began in March 2015. A surprise late-night run on Broadway marked the first public appearanceof First Hill's sky-blue car, one of the "rainbow assortment" of cars unveiled by the city ("A Colorful Start ..."). Initial tests were completed in October 2015 when a final phase of "post-performance testing" began, requiring each of the cars to travel 310 miles largely without incident ("First Hill Streetcar Begins ...").

Even before the line officially began operating in January 2016, when Mayor Ed Murray (b. 1955) and others avoided pomp, it was criticized for being too slow and sharing lanes with cars, making it part of the traffic congestion it was intended to relieve. Critics said ridership would be depressed due to such design flaws. Within two years, however, the line surpassed its goals of 3,000 rides a day, on average. Beginning in January 2018, the streetcar kept an average of 3,000 daily rides or higher until May 2019, when it surpassed more than 4,000 rides a day.


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