Riding the S.L.U.T., part 3: Mass transit now? Weighing the costs and benefits of the new streetcar

Despite a large initial turnout for the South Lake Union streetcar's opening, as well as free rides throughout its opening month, ridership has dwindled recently.

Ridership levels may ultimately decide the fate of streetcars in Seattle.

Although there was a great turnout for the streetcar's opening day celebrations, it seems the novelty may already be wearing off.

On Dec. 19, a streetcar was involved in a traffic accident at 7:28 a.m. Perhaps more damaging than the fender-bender itself (which resulted from an SUV running a red light) was the fact that there were no commuters on board the streetcar at the time of the accident.

"Right now, all we have is anecdotal evidence," Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata said. "Some folks still just want to move ahead without finding out whether this first streetcar is effective."

On Jan. 8, the City Council's Transportation Committee heard a preliminary report from engineering consultant Marni Heffron and Anne Vernez Moudon, UW professor of Urban Design & Planning, on the feasibility of expanding the existing line.

"The context of the meeting seemed to be that the council has made up its mind that we are going forward with a streetcar network, and it is just a matter of choosing the best next route," Licata wrote in response.

The council will eventually receive monthly reports on ridership levels, he said.

"What's critical here is to compare the streetcar to bus services and ask what we are getting on a per capita basis," he said.

In 2009, Sound Transit will have the first stretch of light rail up and running, from Westlake Center to Tukwila. By then, they also expect to have construction underway on the underground University Link, which will connect the UW campus to Capitol Hill and Westlake Center.

Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center (TRAC-UW), also anticipates that the region will begin moving toward a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, pointing to the Rapid Ride project along Aurora Avenue North/Highway 99.

Part of the 2006 Transit Now initiative, Rapid Ride would provide faster service between a limited number of stops, in some cases utilizing separate lanes for buses. Bus stops would also be modernized like the streetcar, with more covered areas and real-time bus arrival signs.

The real question is whether city planners and politicians will have the patience to see these improvements through, Hallenbeck said.

"The Belltown transition took about 10 to15 years," he said, pointing out the patchy nature of improvements along Highway 99. "Rapid Ride's success depends, at least in part, on whether developers believe that the system is permanent enough and able to remain stylish."

Likewise, the fate of streetcars in Seattle remains to be seen.

On Jan. 8, the City Council heard a preliminary report on the feasibility of expanding the line. Once a more detailed engineering report comes in, the City Council will begin holding meetings with local community groups. At that point, it will remain up to each district to determine how much they want a streetcar in their neighborhood.

"We want people to volunteer for density, as opposed to sprawl," Hallenbeck said.

The streetcar line is only one of several ambitious mass transit programs in the works.

After more than six years of negotiation and planning, Sound Transit's University Link is set to begin preliminary construction by the end of 2008.

The underground station will be adjacent to Husky Stadium and include a separate entrance on the campus side of the Burke-Gilman Trail south of Drumheller Fountain to minimize conflict between pedestrians, bicyclists and Montlake traffic.

True to its name, the 3.15 mile long University Link is merely one segment - albeit a very integral one - in the region's larger light rail plans. It will eventually connect to the Westlake--Tukwila line, which should begin operating by the end of 2009. Further extensions to Northgate and the eastside are also in the works.

Bruce Gray, spokesman for Sound Transit, said University Link is expected to receive approval by the end of the month for a $750 million federal Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA), which will pay for half of the projected cost.

The other half will come from local sales taxes and a portion of car rental fees in the Sound Transit district.

Sound Transit is also holding meetings with Capitol Hill residents in order to seek underground easements, which are necessary before construction can begin.

"As a homeowner you own the rights to your land all the way to the center of the Earth," Gray said. "So even if we are working 180 feet beneath house and not causing any noticeable effects, we still need permission to be there."

By the end of 2008, Sound Transit hopes to begin making way for the Capitol Hill station, demolishing a few buildings and relocating utilities.

UW students excited by the prospect of bypassing Montlake traffic should not get too excited, as the University Link is not expected to be completed until 2016. When it is finally up and running, however, it will provide future UW students with yet one more vital link to life in the fast lane.

[Reach reporter Christian Nelson at news@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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