All Aboard The First Hill Streetcar

The start of First Hill Streetcar service on Saturday was a welcome addition to Seattle’s transit system and, according to Mayor Ed Murray, well overdue. 

“We waited a little too long, in my opinion,” Murray said before the streetcar’s inaugural ride from Pioneer Square to the end of the line in Capitol Hill, “but we’re up and running.”

SDOT started construction on the $135 million project in spring 2012. It was financed primarily by Sound Transit, with $2.5 Million coming from the City.

Contract with Czech manufacturer Inekon was originally set for completion on Oct. 7, 2014. This date was later revised to June 2015. Then, it could be completed in the fall. Due to its delays, Inekon ended up with $1.5 million in penalties before the First Hill Streetcar’s soft launch on Saturday.

“One of the issues that walked in my door when I first started was, this was not done,” Murray said.

The final stage of testing was over a month long and streetcars have been running on the lines for more than a year. It connects Capitol HillFirst Hill; the Central District, International District, and Pioneer Square.

Project funding came from Sound Transit’s voter-approved ST2 measure in 2008. Bruce Gray, spokesperson for Sound Transit said that Sound Transit was forced to compromise when it realized how expensive it would be to build a tunnel deep through First Hill as part of its light rail project. It wanted to connect Capitol Hill with Washington. 

“We make up for taking that out of U Link,” he said. 

Murray stated to the Capitol Hill Times that the Legislature committed a serious error in not increasing funding for a First Hill light rail station. This is because of the substantial employment opportunities it provides.

“That’s water under the bridge at this point,” he said aboard the moving streetcar.

While the First Hill Streetcar was delayed by more than a year, Murray said there was new technology involved that will be good for the city’s carbon footprint. Streetcars are equipped with an energy storage system on board to prevent conflicts with King County Metro trolley cables. The streetcars can also be activated when they’re traveling downhill.

Murray has been a Capitol Hill resident for the past 32 years and doesn’t get in a lot of driving himself, he said, due to his position. 

“It wouldn’t be unreasonable at all for me to walk to the station, get off at Pioneer Square and walk to city hall,” he said. 

Liz McCarty from Seattle Central College is certain to be a regular rider. Liz, who studies gothic design and lives in Capitol Hill with her boyfriend, works in Pioneer Square, and lives in Capitol Hill, will also frequent the bike.

“I have been super excited about this opening,” she said, adding King County Metro Route 8 tends to be unreliable. … “The magic day has finally arrived.”

SDOT will offer free First Hill Streetcar ride for commuters, up to the Grand Opening celebration. The date is still unknown and it is unlikely that anyone will be able to take the line after February 8th.

Murray Shiosaki (husband) and Michael Shiosaki (passenger on First Hill Streetcar) after Saturday’s first ride.

“I’ll be taking it regardless,” McCarty said, ” but I’ll happily use it for free until then.”

Ethan Melone was satisfied with the response to the initial launch, even though it was flooded with rain. SDOT had to wait until the first streetcar reached Washington at 14th before they released additional cars. On Saturday, there will be four streetcars running at approximately 15 minutes each and five on weekdays at around 12 minutes. 

“It’s very nice to see people turning out,” Melone said, “even though it’s a typical Seattle day.”

Until the free rides end, SDOT won’t be conducting ridership counts, he said. 

First Hill Streetcar stations can be found at Broadway, East Denny Way, 14th, Washington, Occidental and Jackson. It runs from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m. every Monday through Saturday, and 10 to 8 p.m. Sundays and on holidays.

Melone indicated that the Broadway Extension was in its 90 percent design stage. Construction of the Broadway Extension will begin by late 2016, according to SDOT. Streetcar service will now extend north to Broadway, Denny Station and Roy Street. Stations at Harrison Street and Roy Street are also included.

“We actually have some federal grants in place, so now we need to secure the local match,” Melone said of the $26-million project.

It is suggested that this be done by a local improvement area along Broadway’s alignment. This would also mirror the work of SDOT on its South Lake Union Line.