All photos courtesy Seattle Department of Transportation

All photos courtesy Seattle Department of Transportation

Seattle’s First Hill Streetcar, which opened January 2016, is currently an independent, stand-alone system, but is part of a broader vision by the City of Seattle. This vision entails building a modern streetcar network system that will provide new urban mobility options, support economic growth, and strengthen connections among the places where people live, work and socialize.  

Regular service started without any major issues and just in time for the March opening of Sound Transit’s U-Link light rail extension, which serves a new Capitol Hill Station at the northern terminus of the streetcar line. The First Hill Streetcar will be an important link in the regional transit system, with an additional connection to Sound Transit’s regional rail system at the International District Station, as well as Sounder commuter rail and Amtrak intercity rail at King Street Station.

“Our streetcar neighborhoods are embracing the ways that they can attract neighbors and visitors to events and activities. The streetcar is uniting diverse neighborhoods in many unique ways,” says Michael James, Seattle Department of Transportation’s rail transit director.

Destination Connector
There are 10 stops on the First Hill Streetcar line, connecting diverse and vibrant residential neighborhoods and business districts. Capitol Hill is a densely populated residential district in Seattle, one of the city’s most prominent nightlife and entertainment districts and the location of Seattle Central College. First Hill is considered a regional destination due to its concentration of major medical facilities (Harborview Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center and Virginia Mason Medical Center) and Seattle University. The Chinatown-International District, characterized by the three individual neighborhood names of Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon, is the center of Seattle’s Asian-American community.  

Just south of First Hill is an ambitious development initiative being led by the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA). Yesler Terrace is a 30-acre site originally developed by the SHA in the early 1940s as the city’s first publicly subsidized housing. Due to its aging infrastructure and housing units, SHA plans to transform the neighborhood into a model community with the new streetcar line as a significant catalyzing feature. What is emerging is a dynamic, mixed-income community with 5,000 housing units and subsidized homes for low- and moderate-income residents.

It was the desire to connect the First Hill neighborhood to the regional rail-transit system that led to the creation of the First Hill Streetcar Line. Originally planned to be served by Sound Transit’s North Link (LRT), the station was removed from the project due to engineering challenges associated with the geological conditions in the location of the proposed deep-bore station. Sound Transit removed the station from the North Link, and in January 2006, authorized staff to begin planning for a possible new streetcar line to connect First Hill to the regional rail transit system.  

Streetcar running on battery power through Seattle’s International District.

Streetcar running on battery power through Seattle’s International District.

The $134 million project was funded as part of the Sound Transit 2 mass transit expansion ballot measure approved by voters in November 2008. Sound Transit then developed an inter-governmental agreement with the City of Seattle for the city to design and construct the transit line. The agreement included targeted service parameters for the new streetcar service, including planned headways and travel time. In essence, Sound Transit and the City of Seattle had the broader vision of providing an efficient connection between the Union Station and new Capital Hill LRT station, but what they had as a starting point was essentially a $134 million budget without a project alignment.  

In 2009, the city engaged AECOM to help plan and design the new streetcar line. Through a 12-month planning and environmental review process, the preferred alignment was selected and advanced into the engineering phase. LTK Engineering was hired to work alongside AECOM developing the design of systems, vehicle procurement, and the operations and maintenance facility. Stacy Witbeck Inc. was next hired as the general contractor/construction manager (GC/CM) for the construction of the line.

Through an approach targeted to minimize the overall project costs, a streamlined design was developed that in turn allowed for an additional five-block extension of  the proposed line from the original terminus proposed at 5th/Jackson, serving the International District station, to the heart of Seattle’s historic downtown location at Pioneer Square, with connections to CenturyLink and Safeco Field. Other key features added to the new line include a modest level of transit signal priority systems installed at critical intersections in order to enhance streetcar operations and help achieve the targeted vehicle headways.  

Vehicle technology
Six streetcars vehicles were manufactured by Inekon Trams of the Czech Republic — the same company that built the vehicles for Seattle Streetcar’s South Lake Union line. The vehicles are based on Inekon’s bi-directional 12-Trio model, three of the vehicles were assembled at Inekon’s facilities in the Czech Republic and the remaining three were assembled locally in Seattle by Pacifica Marine. The new line will be the second project in the U.S. to utilize a new on-board energy storage system (lithium-ion batteries) to allow for one direction of the service to run without overhead wires. Vehicles will use overhead wires for the 2.5-mile outbound/uphill run and under battery power for the inbound/downhill leg of the route.

Already, performance of the batteries has shown that the new streetcars will run farther than expected off-wire, including some uphill, northbound travel. This is due to a brief downhill segment through the First Hill neighborhood that lets the vehicle’s regenerative brakes gather enough power to continue northbound, much like a hybrid car. The benefit of the wireless operation allowed the Seattle Department of Transportation to reduce some of the infrastructure costs associated with the overhead contact wires for the streetcar, including the elimination of expensive crossings of existing trolley bus wires at several intersections.

A two-way protected bikeway runs alongside the new streetcar line through the First Hill and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.

A two-way protected bikeway runs alongside the new streetcar line through the First Hill and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.

Integrating biking, walking
In response to community input and the high concentration of pedestrian and bicyclists who live, work or go to school along the corridor, special attention was given during the project development phase to integrate high-quality bicycle and pedestrian facilities into the streetcar project design. The route selection process included an assessment of the candidate alignments, with respect to connections to existing bike facilities, transit and other destinations. As the design developed, AECOM supported the city by developing and assessing the various scenarios to re-program each street to incorporate the new rail-transit multi-modal transportation network. What emerged was a fully-integrated design that found the operational balance for each segment of the project to create vibrant transportation corridors, each uniquely tailored to the demands of each street.   

As the streetcar departs from downtown, it travels through the International District along South Jackson Street — a major trunk-line for several regional high-capacity bus lines. It also provides the critical access for the multiple small businesses of Chinatown and Little Saigon that rely on freight deliveries and sidewalk activities. Jackson Street had also been recently adopted as a priority bike-route as part of Seattle’s Bike Master Plan. The streetcar tracks are located in the left lanes of this major arterial with stops located in the median (left-turn) lane. The right lanes were widened where possible to accommodate the heavy bus traffic and, where possible, bike lanes to allow for cyclists to climb the 5% to 6% grade in the outbound/eastbound direction. A proposed plan for an alternate bike-priority route was developed to direct less experienced cyclists to travel along an adjacent street.

The alignment traverses along the quieter streets of 14th Avenue and Yesler Terrace serving the Bailey Gatzert residential neighborhood and Yesler Housing Development. A road diet was implemented, removing travel lanes to provide dedicated bike lanes and some on-street parking.

For the mile-long segment along the East Broadway corridor, the project introduced a two-way European-style cycle-track on the east side of the street. Known as the Broadway Bikeway, it is one of the first significant stretches of protected bike lanes in the city’s busy central neighborhoods. The protected bike lanes, a design feature of the First Hill Streetcar project, help cyclists avoid streetcar tracks and create a facility where people of all ages and abilities can ride a bike. Transit islands give streetcars and buses a place to pick-up and drop-off passengers without pulling into the bike lanes. They also give people waiting for transit a place to stand that is not in the middle of the sidewalk, freeing up valuable sidewalk space. With the opening of the First Hill Streetcar, East Broadway has already become a model for the future of complete streets in Seattle.

Already, the City of Seattle is planning two extensions of the First Hill Streetcar line. Final design is underway for the Broadway Extension that will extend the service a half mile further into the Capital Hill commercial and residential core. Designs are nearly complete as well for the Center City Connector, which will connect through downtown to the existing South Lake Union streetcar line (launched in 2007). The launch of the First Hill Streetcar was a big step towards completing a connected system in Seattle, which is scheduled to be completed by 2020.

Mark L. Dorn is VP, Streetcar Project Development and Delivery, with AECOM’s office in Portland, Ore.