Have you noticed the metal tracks that run along Broadway right outside of Seattle Central’s main campus? Maybe you’ve seen what
look like unused bus stops with “out of service” banners covering their signs. Almost impossible to miss as of mid-October are the brightly col- ored streetcars themselves, which lumber down the street to the sound of clanging bells.
All of these new additions are part of the First Hill Streetcar Line: a project conceived of after Sound Transit abandoned a plan to build a sub- terranean light rail tunnel in First Hill, citing risk and expense. Having already committed to servicing that area, they studied alternatives and proposed a streetcar line.
In 2008 voters approved the $134 million project via ballot measure. Construction began in 2012 and finished in 2014. The original plan was for service to begin at the end of 2014, however the project has been plagued by a series of delays. First, vehicles were late in arriving to the US from the Czech-based manufacturer Inekon Trams Co. Then electronic parts were delayed by US Cus- toms at the airport because they seemed suspi- cious. Finally, during the testing period, parts of the cars failed a fire-resistance test while other cars had issues with the braking systems.
When asked if the City of Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) anticipated such delays, Ethan Melone, Rail Transit Manager at SDOT said, “No, we didn’t. One might argue that we should have [laughs] because we’re finding as we look around the country at other projects like this, most of them are experiencing delays in the manufacturing, but we didn’t count on there be- ing delays.”
After postponing the target date numerous times, SDOT now declines to publish a specific time- line for completion. However, Melone reported, “We now are very close to having all the vehicles ready.”
Out of the line’s six streetcars, five have already completed acceptance testing. Afterwards each car will be inspected, then the cars will enter the reliability testing stage. This process entails running the cars for 500 kilometers to ensure no unforeseen problems arise from consistent use. Melone clarified, “The last 100 km of that have to be more or less perfect. If something is not perfect in the last 100 km then we restart the clock. Once all the cars have finished that re- liability testing, then we’re very close. Then we basically just want to simulate the service with- out passengers for about two weeks. And then we can start carrying passengers.”
Meanwhile local residents and developers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the de- lays. Monica Joe, a Capitol Hill resident who works with housing non-profits, explained: “The areas around the streetcar stops are developing with the promise that future residents would be able to get basic chores done and get to work or school via the streetcar. These delays mean that there are people who are moving into new developments who are isolated and waiting to be connected.”
When the streetcar line eventually opens, the hours of operation will be Monday-Friday 5am to 1am and Sundays and holidays 10am-8pm. The route, which includes 10 stops and spans 2.5 miles, will begin at the new Capitol Hill light rail station being built on East John Street—expect- ed to open this year— and pass through First Hill and the International District before ending in Pioneer Square.
Each of the six streetcars is painted a different color, intended to capture the spirit of each of the neighborhoods they service. Capitol Hill’s paint job is, of course, hot pink. But when all six streetcars will be ready for Capitol Hill’s colorful citizens remains to be seen.
For every day the streetcars still aren’t ready, the streetcar manufacturer must pay $1,000 per car to the City of Seattle. So far the fines have totaled over $800,000.
By Alexandra Sachnoff