Monday, January 25, 2010

First Hill Streetcar Update

Two weeks ago TCC hosted a Friday Forum on the First Hill Streetcar project, where project manager Ethan Melone was on hand to present the latest alignment alternatives and answer questions. Much of this information is available on the Seattle Streetcar website, but Ethan was able to go into more detail on some of the different alignment options.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the project, the First Hill Streetcar is funded by the 2008 Sound Transit ballot measure as a way to connect First Hill to the International District light rail station to the south and the future Capitol Hill light rail station to the north. The 1996 ballot measure that created Sound Transit included a plan for a First Hill station, but those plans were scrapped due to cost issues. The streetcar will help provide access to light rail for First Hill and other neighborhoods along the route.

Through an interlocal agreement reached late last year, Sound Transit is paying for the project but the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will design and build it. SDOT has developed several alignment alternatives and hopes to make a recommendation to the City Council on a preferred alignment for a vote this April. The main 3 alignment alternatives are the Boren/Minor Alignment, the 2-Way Broadway Alignment, and the 12th Avenue/Broadway Couplet Alignment. These alternatives have been the focus of much debate in the community, but Ethan Melone pointed out that there are many other small alternatives along the line that need to be considered. I will examine these in detail starting with the International District and working towards Capitol Hill.

View First Hill Streetcar in a larger map

In the International District the plan has always been for the streetcar to have a terminus right in front of the ID light rail station just east of Union Station. This will be a great transfer point between Amtrak, Sounder, Link light rail, and the streetcar. SDOT was originally considering a 2-way alignment along Jackson from the ID station east, but is now considering a couple looping options.

SDOT would prefer to use a loop to turn around than to use a single-track turnaround the way the South Lake Union Streetcar does to save layover time and use less valuable roadspace. To that end, SDOT is considering a loop into Pioneer Square that goes west on Jackson St, north on 2nd Ave, east on Main St, and south on 5th Ave. Ethan Melone emphasized this idea is primarily a way to turn the streetcar around, with greater access for Pioneer Square being an added benefit.

Another loop option would be to turn the streetcar south from Jackson to 5th, then go east on Weller St, then north on 7th Ave and back to Jackson going east. This would go into the heart of the International District and perform the same looping function.

View First Hill Streetcar in a larger map

Moving east, there are several options for the area around 12th Ave and Boren St. The initial plan was to turn from Jackson St to 12th Ave going north, then left onto Boren and another left onto Yesler going west. This is the most direct route to Broadway around Yesler Terrace, but Ethan Melone mentioned several problems with these intersections. One is that this area has a huge number of overhead trolleybus wires intersecting, which would make a turning streetcar much more expensive and difficult. Second, a major water pipeline running under 12th Ave would make for another expensive utility relocation. Third, it would make for a dangerous intersection for bikes. 12th Ave is a major route for cyclists moving north-south in the area, and having the streetcar turn onto 12th from Jackson would create a potential conflict.

To lower the utility relocation costs and improve the cyclist/streetcar interaction, SDOT has developed an alternative route taking the streetcar farther east on Jackson, then north on 14th, then west on Yesler. Cyclists would cross the tracks at a perpendicular angle and should be free from any danger of getting their tires caught. This routing also would avoid some heavy traffic on Boren and might even result in some time savings despite the increased length. Ethan Melone also pointed out that this routing would provide some better access to the Little Saigon neighborhood.

Moving along, SDOT has settled on an alignment going west on Yesler, then north on Broadway. This is a change from previous maps showing the streetcar cutting from Yesler to Broadway via Boren. This has changed because that section of Boren is a 9% grade, which is not too steep for the streetcar but would result in a huge loss of operating efficiency. Boren is also very congested in that area and the new alignment would skirt past that traffic. The Yesler to Broadway alignment also better serves the Yesler Terrace housing development and Harborview Medical Center.

View First Hill Streetcar in a larger map

The next segment of the line is where most of the community debate has centered around. Neighborhood activists, transit advocates, and news outlets have all weighed in mostly around whether the streetcar should be focused on First Hill (Boren or 2-way Broadway alignments) or serve a larger area by using a couplet going one direction on Broadway and one direction on 12th Avenue. If you want wade into the debate, click here and here and here and here and here. We here at TCC are just looking forward to the streetcar giving people more transportion choices.

So what are the basic reasons for each alignment option through First Hill? The Boren/Minor alignment would cut most deeply into the heart of First Hill, providing access to Virginia/Mason Hospital as well as the more residential area around Seneca. It would also come close to where the original light rail station was meant to be, around Boylston and Madison. Ethan Melone said that this alignment was added at the request of Virginia/Mason and First Hill residents. He also said it is the most expensive option and would 4 minutes of travel time compared to the other two alignment alternatives. SDOT has come up with a "sub-alternative" that would go along Broadway, then left on Boylston, then right on Seneca. This would provide some of the benefits of the Boren/Minor alignment but would address some of the cost and time concerns as well.

The 2-way Broadway alignment is the most straightforward option and has the advantage of being the most direct route. It would also serve Swedish Hospital and Seattle University. While it provides good access to major institutions, however, it does not come as close to where First Hill residents live as the other routes discussed above. Another problem is the traffic on this part of Broadway. Ethan Melone said that SDOT is considering removing parking on one side of Broadway between Boren and Madison to make the streetcar function better. On-street parking is not so important on that part of Broadway, he said, as there is very little retail business in that area.

The 12th/Broadway couplet was proposed by neighborhood stakeholders from the Central District, Squire Park, and Capitol Hill as a way to get transit service to 12th Avenue, a rapidly developing urban village that lacks any north-south bus service. A 2-way streetcar on 12th would not serve First Hill, so a couplet was proposed as a solution. SDOTs current alignment alternative shows the streetcar heading north on Broadway, east on Denny Way, south on 11th, then cutting over to 12th to go south all the way to Jackson. This does serve a larger area, but couplets have an inherent issue in that they provide only one direction to each area. Therefore one might be able to easily go south but they have to walk 3 extra blocks (including a hill) to go north or vice versa. Some argue 3 blocks isn't enough to matter while others think it would be enough to depress ridership. Again, refer to the links above for the arguments for and against. At least two stops would be separated by the Seattle University campus, and Ethan Melone said SDOT is working with SU to figure out possible ways to make the walk easier, possibly using escalators. It is unclear how much that would cost or whether it would adequately address mobility issues.

View First Hill Streetcar in a larger map

Finally we move to the Capitol Hill portion of the First Hill Streetcar. Originally SDOT was planning on keeping the streetcar on Broadway all the way to the light rail station at Denny Way, but a variety of issues led them to develop an 11th Avenue couplet as the terminus for all three alignments. One reason is the amount of traffic on Broadway (especially around Madison, Pike, and Pine) is enough that one streetcar track would be preferable to two. A second consideration is the turnaround issue, just like in Pioneer Square. Another big reason for SDOT is utility relocation costs. Broadway is also home to a water pipeline and also has a lot of overhead wires, plus SDOT is concerned about the impact to local businesses of having the whole street torn up all at once for construction.

11th Avenue was attractive because it is developing as an important part of the Pike/Pine neighborhood, it is pedestrian-oriented, and it goes around Cal Anderson Park. It also is not such a problem walking from one direction to another, because the walk from Broadway to 11th is pretty flat and it would only affect one stop in any case. Under this scenario SDOT is planning to restrict 11th Avenue to one-way southbound traffic and restrict Denny Way to one-way westbound traffic. This would allow the streetcar to flow unimpeded on these narrower streets. Right now the section of Denny Way in question is closed for the next 6 years for station construction, and some neighborhood residents have suggested closing it off permanently to traffic, creating a pedestrian plaza right next to the light rail station entrance. Hopefully SDOT will study this as an option and work with the neighborhood on it. SDOT also has plans to provide the Broadway Farmer's Market with a new space, either on Nagle Place or Denny Way.

Some of you may recall that the original streetcar plan identified an extension farther north on Broadway to Aloha or thereabouts. This extension has not been funded under the current agreement and Ethan Melone said SDOT does not have money to even study that option. He did estimate that it would cost an extra $25-30 million to build the extension. It could be funded through city money, federal grants, a Local Improvement District (LID), or many other means, but he said the direction has to come from the City Council. Many residents and businesses in Capitol Hill argue that the north part of the Broadway business district will suffer if the streetcar does not go that far north. The Capitol Hill Community Council recently released a detailed proposal for this Aloha extension.

Ethan Melone said that regardless of alignment, the streetcar will have 10 minute headways during peak times and 15 minutes non-peak. It will provide reliable, comfortable service in an area that lacks very many north-south transit options, and will connect people to the larger light rail transit network when University Link opens in 2016. The plan right now is to have the First Hill Streetcar open in 2013, with a possible temporary terminus at Pine Street in Capitol Hill depending on whether station construction would not allow for streetcar operation on Denny Way. Ethan Melone said that is still up in the air, but the overall schedule is pretty much set. The City Council will hopefully vote on an alignment in April, and then SDOT will begin work.

1 comment:

  1. I live on Denny Way across from Cal Anderson park. Under the two way broadway proposal, the First Hill Streetcar will be right in front of our door as it changes directions. Do you know what the impact will be? Will they have to remove the trees for overhead electricity lines? what about parking?