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Officials break ground for Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar on July 7, 2006.

HistoryLink.org Essay 8092 : Printer-Friendly Format

On July 7, 2006, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) ceremonially welds the first rail of the planned South Lake Union Streetcar line between downtown Seattle and Lake Union. U.S. Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950), state Representative Ed Murray (subsequently elected to the state Senate), King County Council Chair Larry Phillips, and other officials join Nickels at the ground-breaking ceremony to mark the start of construction on the $51 million streetcar project. The 1.3-mile line between the Westin Hotel downtown near Westlake Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the lake on Fairview Avenue N is expected to open in the fall of 2007.

Second Time Around

The ground breaking came more than 115 years after the first electric streetcar line was built from downtown Seattle to Lake Union. In October, 1890, six years after Seattle's first (horse-drawn) streetcars entered service and just one year after the first electric streetcars began operating, the Seattle Electric Railway and Power Company built a streetcar line from downtown to Lake Union along what would later become Westlake Avenue in the incredible time of five days. That construction feat was prompted by the Seattle City Council's award of eight "provisional" franchises for service between downtown and the lake, with the actual franchise going to the first route that entered service.

Streetcar service on Westlake Avenue ended when Seattle replaced all its streetcars with trackless trolleys and buses in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Streetcar service returned to Seattle in 1982 with the Waterfront Streetcar promoted by City Councilmember George Benson (1919-2004), although buses replaced the vintage streetcars on that route in November 2005 when the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park displaced the trolleys' maintenance barn.

Modern Streetcars

Unlike the Waterfront Streetcar, which ran historic 1920s-vintage streetcars that George Benson found in Australia, the new South Lake Union line will feature three new, modern streetcars (costing $3 million each) with air-conditioning, street-level boarding, and electronic readerboards at each stop announcing the next arrival. Mayor Nickels, who made the streetcar a centerpiece of his "South Lake Union Action Agenda," based the proposal on the modern streetcar system in Portland, Oregon, which serves that city's downtown and Pearl District neighborhoods.

In addition to Nickels, Vulcan, Inc., a major landowner and developer in the south Lake Union area owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (b. 1953), heavily promoted the revival of streetcar service to Lake Union. Half of the $51 million cost for constructing the line and purchasing the streetcars was raised from a Local Improvement District tax assessment imposed on property located near the route, with the remainder coming from regional and federal grants, advertising on streetcars and stations, and other sources.

Criticism and Praise

The South Lake Union streetcars, to be operated by King County Metro Transit, are expected to run every 15 minutes and to carry some 300,000 passengers per year. Like Portland's streetcars (and unlike Sound Transit's Tacoma Link streetcar, opened in 2003, which has it own right of way for most of its route), they will share traffic lanes with automobiles. John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition and an opponent of the streetcar plan, observed that "You could practically walk the entire route more quickly than it will take to get from one end of the route to another" (Lindblom).

Nickels defended the mix of streetcars and automobiles, noting that it allowed the project to be built more quickly for less expense and with less disruption to the surrounding area. With 20,000 new jobs and 17,000 additional residents expected in the South Lake Union area by 2020, Nickels called the project an investment in the future of Seattle, saying it would connect people to new homes and jobs, as well as to a planned transportation hub at Westlake with connections to the Sound Transit light rail system.

Other officials at the ground breaking also praised the project and even predicted that streetcars may return to other parts of the city. U.S. Senator Patty Murray and County councilman Larry Phillips (b. 1956) noted the federal and county support for the streetcar line. State Rep. Ed Murray said "I think more areas are going to want it, once it's up and running" (Lindblom).

Mike Lindblom, "Seattle Breaking Ground Today for South Lake Union Streetcar," The Seattle Times, July 7, 2006 (http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Casey McNerthney, "Lake Union Traffic Delays Saturday," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 26, 2007 (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/); "Mayor Breaks Ground for South Lake Union Streetcar," City of Seattle website accessed February 7, 2007 (http://www.seattle.gov/news/detail.asp?ID=6291&Dept=40); "The South Lake Union Streetcar," Seattle Department of Transportation website accessed February 7, 2007 (http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/stcar_slu.htm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle City Council approves franchise for new Westlake streetcar line on October 14, 1890" and "Seattle Waterfront Streetcar inaugurates service on May 29, 1982" (both by Walt Crowley) www.historylink.org (accessed February 8, 2007).

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Mayor Greg Nickels and others making first weld on track, South Lake Union streetcar groundbreaking, Seattle, July 7, 2006
Courtesy Seattle Department of Transportation

South Lake Union prospective streetcar route, Seattle, 2006
Courtesy Seattle Department of Transportation

Groundbreaking day, South Lake Union streetcar, Seattle, July 7, 2006
Courtesy Seattle Department of Transportation

Mayor Greg Nickels, South Lake Union streetcar groundbreaking, Seattle, July 7, 2006
Courtesy Seattle Department of Transportation

Walt Crowley, Larry Phillips, South Lake Union streetcar groundbreaking, Seattle, July 7, 2006
Courtesy Seattle Department of Transportation

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