The Seattle Waterfront Streetcar -- The Steep Grade from Idea to Reality by George Benson

  • By George Benson
  • Posted 3/09/2005
  • Essay 7271
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This speech on the history of the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar was given in 1992 by the streetcar's advocate and founder, George Benson, who was then president of the Seattle City Council. He presented it to the Vintage Trolley session of the 1992 TRB International Light Rail conference, held in Calgary, Canada.

The Seattle Waterfront Streetcar

by George Benson

The Seattle Waterfront Streetcar began operation on May 29, 1982, and ranks as one of the United States’ first experiments in creating and operating a “vintage rail” system. Initially intended to link visitor attractions along Seattle’s central waterfront, the original 1.6-mile (2.6 kilometers) line was extended by four-tenths of a mile (640 meters) in 1990 and integrated into a comprehensive downtown transit system whose central feature is a new cross-town transit tunnel.

It required eight years to move the Waterfront Streetcar from a deceptively simple idea to an operating system. Along the way, the Waterfront Streetcar concept encountered a daunting succession of political, bureaucratic, financial, and engineering obstacles, and its development costs ballooned from a few hundred thousand dollars to nearly $10 million for the extended system.

Despite this, the Streetcar has become a popular fixture and currently serves some 200,000 riders annually. Many Seattle citizens would sooner chop down the Space Needle than scrap the Streetcars.

This essay describes the geographical and historical context in which the Waterfront Streetcar evolved, recounts the political and technical problems encountered in its development, details the physical aspects of the line and its rolling stock, reviews its performance and operating finances, and offers some advice to others who might be lured by a nostalgic yearning for the clang and rattle of streetcars into building their own vintage rail system.

Geographical and Historical Context

The Seattle Waterfront Streetcar service occupies a unique niche in the history of both Seattle’s central waterfront and its transit services. Because trends and investments in waterfront development and transit planning will exert a major influence on the Streetcar service’s future role as a transportation amenity, they are reviewed briefly here to aid the reader.

Evolution of Seattle's Central Waterfront

Seattle’s “Central Waterfront” stretches approximately one-and-one-half miles (2.4 kilometers) along the eastern shore of Elliott Bay. It features a series of oblique piers originally designed to accommodate the steamers and ferries which were the principal vessels for the Pacific and Puget Sound prior to the 1960s. These piers were originally served by a planked roadway built over tide flats for rail and wagon traffic. Most of the downtown piers and the appropriately named “Railroad Avenue” were originally built by private railroad companies which vied with each other for lucrative and exclusive public right-of-way concessions.

These routes were used primarily for freight after the 1906 opening of a rail tunnel from the foot of Virginia Street to Union Station on the southern edge of the downtown business district (Amtrak passenger service to Seattle currently terminates at the adjacent King Street Station).

When the Port of Seattle was organized as a public port district in 1911, many of the downtown piers and Railroad Avenue were turned over to public ownership. The railroads retained their rights-of-way as the Port and City Government filled in the shoreline with material from inland regrades and constructed present-day Alaskan Way for automobile traffic. An elevated double-deck viaduct was added in the 1950s as part of US 99. This viaduct straddles the remaining waterfront rail lines and defines the western boundary of downtown Seattle, which rises to the east up a steep ridge.

The Port of Seattle’s early commitment to container shipping technology had a profound impact on the character of the central waterfront. The construction of large truck-container piers south of Yesler Way diverted maritime activity away from the central waterfront’s piers, and railroad traffic declined accordingly, except for north-south through-traffic beneath the Alaskan Way viaduct. Many piers were abandoned and City planners began to shift priorities for the area from maritime to housing and entertainment uses. This transition was slowed by passage of the Washington State Shorelines Protection Act in the early 1970s, which emphasizes preservation of maritime commercial uses, but the economics of modern shipping has all but rendered the central waterfront obsolete for such purposes.

As maritime commerce and employment shrank during the 1970s and 1980s, tourism activity increased, spurred by private development of new shopping arcades in pier sheds and the Waterfront Place neighborhood, and public investments in the Seattle Aquarium, Waterfront Park, Myrtle Edwards Park, and the nearby Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square historic districts. This trend is expected to continue in the 1990s with the Port of Seattle’s development of a major trade center, marina and hotel complex adjacent to its headquarters at Pier 66.

Evolution of Seattle's Transit Planning and Services

Seattle’s transit services began with development of private street railways in the late 1800s. These lines were often ancillary to private real estate or utility enterprises and followed no predetermined plan. Seattle’s first attempt to adopt a comprehensive land use and transportation plan, crafted by Olmsted protege Virgil Bogue, was frustrated by voters in 1912. The electorate was more receptive to public ownership of key utilities and in 1919 approved acquisition of private tracks and rolling stock to form the Seattle Municipal Street Railway.

As in other American cities, the rise of the automobile doomed tracked trolleys in Seattle and the last of the lines were discontinued in 1941 in favor of diesel buses and trackless trolleys operated by the reorganized Seattle Transit System.

Comprehensive transit planning continued to languish until the late 1960s, when rampant suburban growth spurred development of a visionary plan for metropolitan heavy-rail transit as part of a county-wide “Forward Thrust” package of bond issues submitted to voters in 1968. Everything passed except the transit plan and a scaled-back version fared no better at the ballot box in 1970. The events of 1912 and 1919 seemed to repeat themselves, however, when county voters approved acquisition of private bus lines and the Seattle Transit System by the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, a county-wide water quality utility formed In the 1950s.

“Metro Transit” immediately embarked on a series of ambitious service improvements and long-range planning processes. Its most significant capital investment to date is the Downtown Seattle Transit Project (DSTP) which features a transit tunnel running beneath the central business district between a northern terminal at the Washington State Trade and Convention Center and a southern terminal in the International District. This facility features three large stations along its 1.3 mile route and is linked by exclusive busways to Interstates 5 and 90.

The tunnel opened in 1990 and is currently served by dual-mode buses which convert from diesel to electric power while underground. Rails were installed in anticipation of future conversion to light-rail service, and Metro Transit is currently developing a new comprehensive transit plan, which may Include both light- and heavy-rail components, for submission to county voters as early as November 1992.

Genesis and Development of the Waterfront Streetcar

The origin of the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar had nothing to do directly with the plans for either the central waterfront or metropolitan transit services in which it would later figure so prominently. Rather, it grew out of the enthusiasm of a local butcher, Robert Hively, who happened to own two Brill Master Unit streetcars salvaged from Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington. Mr. Hively approached me in January 1974 with the idea of operating these cars on switching tracks beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

As a newly elected member of the Seattle City Council, I naively believed that this should be a simple proposition. Take two vintage streetcars, secure a right-of-way on existing waterfront tracks, and recruit a handful of retired transit operators as motormen and -- voila! -- you have a streetcar system in a few months at the cost of a few thousand dollars. Events quickly derailed this pleasant fantasy.

At that same time, Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman and councilmember Bruce Chapman were advocating a trolley line down 1st Avenue to link Pike Place Market on the north with Pioneer Square. Seattle, it should be noted, was a national leader in creating and financing preservation of historic districts, and a vintage trolley link between its two main attractions, which effectively bracket the downtown core, seemed to be a natural complement. When the 1st Avenue proposal proved to be costly (due to utility relocation and other necessary capital outlays), the Waterfront line became the preferred route, but it was not without its own problems, fiscal and otherwise.

First, Hively’s cars failed to meet Federal Railway Administration safety standards, which applied because the tracks we intended to use were part of the transcontinental rail system. Estimates revealed that upgrading each car could cost $60,000.

The rail line itself had a tangled ownership dating back to the railway “wars” of Seattle’s early history. Approvals for its use were required from Union Pacific, Milwaukee and Burlington Northern, which actually operated the line and raised a host of technical objections to the idea. Additionally, individual pier owners had to waive their long-unused rights to service off the main line.

Finally, the railroad workers union had to approve an exception to the standard labor rules which required a three-person crew for any engines operating on interstate railways, even a trolley. After indicating an initial interest in a special arrangement for the streetcar line, the union decided to go by the book.

Despite Mayor Uhlman’s public support for the Waterfront Streetcar concept, his planning staff decided that the line would be prohibitively expensive and irrelevant to the larger transit schemes then being developed by Metro Transit, and they set about quietly to sabotage “Benson’s Folly.” As a newly elected member of the City Council, I was oblivious to these bureaucratic maneuvers and blithely enlisted the support of U.S. Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, who then ranked among the most powerful members of Congress. They in turn prevailed upon Burlington Northern to take a more flexible approach toward the notion. This support effectively switched the staff onto a dead end spur, and the streetcar line got a political green light. (It should be noted that the city’s planning staff was reorganized shortly after a new mayor, Charles Royer, took office in 1978).

Burlington Northern officials, led by regional vice president Richard A. Beuike, suggested using its western-most running-tracks, which could be legally disengaged from the transcontinental system and federal regulation. This also cut the Gordian knot of union jurisdiction, putting the more flexible transit workers union in the “driver’s seat.” Unfortunately, it did nothing to untangle the welter of historical rail rights-of-way dating back to the old “Railroad Avenue” and it took two years to obtain all of the necessary permissions.

As these negotiations progressed, I turned my attention to the problem of finding suitable rolling stock, specifically standard-gauge, double-ended trams powered with 600 volts built some 50 years ago. A national request for proposals elicited only two bids: one from Robert Hively and a lower bid from Paul Class, based in Glenwood, Oregon, who undertook a world-wlde search for appropriate streetcars.

These were ultimately found in Melbourne, Australia. I crossed the Pacific to examine these cars prior to purchase, which was fortunate since officials there had reserved inoperable cars for us in the mistaken belief that we were only building a museum display. Upon learning that we meant to run the cars, they graciously gave us the pick of their rolling stock.

To date, Seattle has purchased a total of five Melbourne Class W-2 streetcars. Each car cost $28,000 ($5,000 for the car and $13,000 shipping). Compare this with the $150,000-plus cost of a standard diesel coach or the $1 million-plus cost of a moderm light-rail car!

While the cost of the streetcars proved a pleasant surprise, estimates for line improvements ballooned into the millions of dollars. At the same time, jurisdictional disputes arose between the city government and Metro Transit over financial and operating responsibilities. Newly adopted rules for handicapped access also imposed new costs in designing stations and reconfiguring rolling stock, but these also led us to create the first fully accessible surface rail system in the nation.

Matters were further complicated by the skepticism and general anti-rail bias of the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) to whom we looked for about one-third of the $3 million construction budget (Senators Magnuson and Jackson again helped to overcome this resistance). With persistence, each of these obstacles was overcome, but on the eve of commencing construction in 1981, the City Council balked at approving the local funding.

In an abrupt change (or failure) of heart, the Council demanded that as the streetcars’ “primary beneficiaries,” the downtown and waterfront business communities should shoulder the burden of local funding. The business and property owners rallied at a meeting on January 11, 1981, and gave their overwhelming endorsement (by a 72 percent majority) to a Local Improvement District to raise $1.2 million for construction through special tax assessments. This in turn required amendment of state organic law governing such tax districts during that year’s session of the Legislature.

Even with this support, completing the system required enormous private assistance and volunteer labor from every stratum of the community. Even Bruce Nordstrom, principal in the fashion retail chain, pitched in to help paint the first streetcars for their inaugural run.

That came on May 29, 1982, and 3,000 citizens lined the route for the Waterfront Streetcar’s first trip. The line was an instant success with tourists, waterfront businesses, shoppers, employees, and even City and Metro Transit bureaucrats. The journey from Bob Hively’s simple idea to a functioning system had taken eight years, cost over $3 million, and spanned the Pacific Ocean from Melbourne to Seattle -- all for a 20-minute streetcar ride along one and a half miles of waterfront!

Physical Features of the Waterfront Streetcar System: Original Line

The initial route of the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar extended 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) from Broad Street on the north to Main Street on the south. The system uses a single line of track located between Alaskan Way, a four-lane arterial, on the west and the Alaskan Way Viaduct on the east. One short passing track was constructed just south of Pike Street.

The northern terminus is located 400 feet north of Broad Street and Pier 70, which marks the northernmost limit of the central waterfront and has been remodeled as a shopping and restaurant arcade. This terminus lies at the entrance to Myrtle Edwards Park, a popular shoreline greensward which continues another mile to the north. The streetcar barn for storage and maintenance is also located north of Broad Street.

Following the line south, there are five “car stops” or stations spaced approximately four city blocks apart along the route: Vine Street, Bell Street, Pike Street, University Street, and Madison Street. Each car stop features a raised, handicapped-accessible, concrete platform with a steel and glass pergola shelter and benches. The interim car stops correspond to major activity centers along the waterfront:

  • Vine Street serves the Edgewater Inn, a large convention hotel on Pier 67.
  • Bell Street serves the Port of Seattle’s headquarters at Pier 66, a site which is slated for major redevelopment by 1995.
  • Pike Street serves the Seattle Aquarium and Omnidome Theatre on Pier 59. This station is also linked via a “hillclimb” system of stairs and elevators to the Pike Place Market, a landmark farmers market and tourist hub perched on the ridge top to the east.
  • University Street serves Waterfront Park, a large, passive viewpoint which forms a crescent between Piers 59 and 57, and a converted pier shed retail arcade on Pier 57.
  • Madison Street serves the Pier 52 terminal of the Washington State Ferry System, which provides transportation across Puget Sound for thousands of commuters and visitors each day. Madison Street also serves the new Waterfront Place complex of new and restored condominiums, apartments, offices, and retailers on the east.
  • The original southern terminal for the line was Main Street, at the western edge of the Pioneer Square Historic District and adjacent to the Washington Street Boat Landing, a small public day-moorage for pleasure boats. Main Street also lies about five blocks north of the Kingdome, King County’s sports and exhibition stadium.

Several design features of the system deserve mention:

  • The tracks are bonded to limit wandering currents which might affect railroad switching systems and underground utilities.
  • Grade-crossing signals were added for cross-streets north of Bell Street due to heavy truck use and limited visibility in this area.
  • The Melbourne cars measure 48 feet (14.4 meters) In length and eight feet (2.4 meters) in width and weigh 16 tons each. A motorman station is located at each end, and the cars are partitioned into three discrete passenger saloons for up to 52 seated riders and 41 standing riders. The saloons feature upholstered longitudinal benches and latitudinal benches crafted from Tasmanian mahogany. The cars are accessed via sliding doors on the western side behind the motorman station. Although dating as far back as 1924, the Melbourne cars did not require major upgrading. Primary improvements Included addition of a radio communication system, public address system and warning whistles to each car.
  • Construction of the original system, including acquisition of the first three streetcars and grade crossing signals, cost $3.6 million in 1982. Of this, $1 million was provided by UMTA through Metro Transit; $1 million was provided by the City of Seattle; $1.2 million was raised by the Local Improvement District tax assessment; $370,000 for signalization was provided by the Federal Arterial Safety Board; and the balance was donated by Burlington Northern Railroad and other private benefactors.

The 1990 Extension

Although Initially scorned as little more than a toy by transportation planners, the Waterfront Streetcar was made an integral component in development of Metro’s Downtown Seattle Transit Project (DSTP) during the late 1980s. The DSTP faced two primary hurdles: how to expedite commuter and crosstown routes through Seattle’s narrow downtown core (which is pinched to as few as seven blocks between Interstate 5 and the waterfront) and how to increase internal circulation via transit feeder services.

After much debate, a north-south transit tunnel beneath 3rd Avenue was adopted as the best solution for commuter and through-services. Metro then turned to two “vintage” systems to supplement the existing “Ride Free” downtown zone within which riders may travel via any coach at no charge. The Alveg Monorail, an artifact of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, provided a link to Seattle Center, the former fairgrounds and now the city’s principal performing arts complex, which lies one mile north of downtown. The Monorail’s southern terminus was integrated into the new Westlake Mall shopping arcade, which in turn, opens onto the Westlake Station of the transit tunnel.

The Waterfront Streetcar offered a second link to the waterfront, which lies four blocks west and down a steep ridge from the tunnel. In 1990, the Streetcar line was extended eastward on Main Street through the heart of Pioneer Square and then southward on 5th Avenue to terminate at the International District portal of the tunnel. Two car stops were added at Occidental Park in Pioneer Square and at the International District terminus, and two additional Melbourne cars were acquired and modified for service.

Construction through Pioneer Square required stabilization of the subterranean areaways (the famous “Underground Seattle” catacombs left over from turn-of-the-century landfilling) and laying track on the Main Street automobile bridge over the Burlington Northern tracks leading to the downtown rail tunnel.

The extension required fabrication of new track, which was performed in Luxembourg. At street crossings, hard rubber tracks are used out of consideration to bicyclists.

These special engineering solutions raised the cost of the four-tenths mile (640 meters) extension to $6.5 million -- nearly twice the cost of the original line. This cost was borne almost entirely by Metro Transit as part of the DSTP budget. The extended line entered full operation on June 23, 1990, and the entire DSTP system was inaugurated the following September.

Performance and Operating Experience

The system operates 12 hours per day year-round with a minimum of two cars with 30-minute headways. One car is added during peak times and during the summer, reducing headways to 20 minutes. Each car is manned by a motorman and conductor.

Between May 1982 and this writing, the system has experienced no major accidents or breakdowns. Liability claims over the past eight years total $300 -- including a $100 claim for breakage of a pair of eyeglasses during an emergency stop.

The Streetcar (like the Monorail) is not subject to the downtown “Ride Free” zone. Metro charges its standard one-zone fare (currently $0.75) and issues a transfer, which allows each rider to board any Metro vehicle, including the Streetcar, at no charge for one hour.

The Streetcar’s first full year of operation in 1983 registered its best ridership to date with 277,801 fares. Novelty and a strong tourism season played an obvious role in this initial success. Ridership declined to 232,000 fares over the next three years, rose to 242,000 fare in 1987, and then declined anew to 201,000 fares in 1989. Allowing for the system’s shutdown for a full quarter during its extension, this ridership level was maintained during 1990. Total ridership in 1991 registered a further drop to 174,000 fares, but the system operated for only six months due to storm sewer work along the waterfront. Thus, the extension appears to be reviving ridership to earlier levels.

Streetcar and total Metro Transit ridership declined between 1982 and 1991. Causes for these ridership trends are difficult to pinpoint. It should be noted that overall Metro ridership declined steadily from 1982 to 1988. Further, all of downtown Seattle was disrupted by a major public and private building boom (including construction the DSTP) during the late 1980s, which discouraged tourists, shoppers, and employees from circulating through the district.

Streetcar ridership no doubt suffers from the failure of the DSTP to achieve its full service level due to mechanical problems and delivery delays for its dual-mode coaches. The transit tunnel is also closed on Sundays, a prime tourism day when riders might be expected to utilize the tunnel-Streetcar link. Additionally, marketing research shows that Streetcar ridership is very responsive to promotion, but this has been sporadic at best.

Farebox revenue In 1991 totaled $129,600 against operating costs of $862,000. The revenue shortfall is made up from a variety of sources, including advertising sales and an UMTA operating grant of $200,000 per year. It should be noted that the Streetcars’ operating costs are partially offset by elimination of conventional coach service along the Central Waterfront.

Conclusions and Expectations

Vintage transit systems are necessarily unique propositions wherever they are undertaken. This means that critical factors of popularity, political support, potential use and funding, and physical characteristics will vary dramatically with locale. Thus, it is difficult if not impossible to fashion a general prescription out of any single city’s experience. This said, there are at least a few helpful tips which might be gleaned from Seattle’s experience with its Waterfront Streetcar.

First, do not assume that recreating or simulating an older system is as simple as it may sound. Reviving an older transit technology can be just as daunting as pioneering a new approach. Adapting older machinery to a modern transportation context presents its own set of special engineering and operational problems. Be especially alert to the layers of legal and regulatory arrangements in which older commercial rail lines may be entangled.

Second, although integration of a vintage system into a new transit system is a self-evident virtue, it creates problems as well as opportunities. There is the danger, as we have experienced so far in Seattle, that the vintage component may be dragged down by shortcomings in the larger system.

Third, unlike supernatural baseball fields, the formula “build it and they will come” does not guarantee ridership for vintage rail. Aggressive and ongoing promotion is needed to generate passengers and farebox revenue.

I believe that the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar faces a bright future. Its ridership will benefit as the bugs are worked out of the total Downtown Seattle Transit Project, and use can be expanded through targeted promotion, e.g., as a shuttle between outlying parking and the Kingdome for major sports events.

Foremost, I am gratified by the outpouring of public sentiment in favor of the Streetcar. Like other famous Seattle “follies” such as the Space Needle and Monorail, the Streetcar has become a beloved fixture on the city’s landscape and in her citizenry’s heart. We climbed a steep grade in taking the Waterfront Streetcar from idea to reality, but it was worth it.


This speech on the history of the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar was given in 1992 by the streetcar's advocate and founder, George Benson, who was then president of the Seattle City Council. He presented it to the Vintage Trolley session of the 1992 TRB International Light Rail conference, held in Calgary, Canada.

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