The headline above adorns a sobering story in the Seattle Times about the dangers of taking streetcars for granted. It’s not about the new, modern South Lake Union line, which has already spurred a second line under construction and a plan for several more lines (on top of the newish light rail system).
It’s about the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line, opened in 1982 through the relentless efforts of its namesake, a long-time Seattle City Council member who died in 2004. George Benson believed the city’s dowdy waterfront would be helped by attractive public transportation. His personal advocacy made it happen. Five ex-Melbourne W2 class trams built between 1925 and 1930 (and identical to Muni’s No. 496) tooled along between the International District and central Seattle, mostly running alongside the surface street known as Alaskan Way, a rough equivalent of The Embarcadero in San Francisco.
Beside the waterfront streetcar line, there’s another similarity to San Francisco: a double-deck freeway obscuring that waterfront boulevard and holding back its renaissance. After pitched political battles that went on for decades, Seattle is finally tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct because it’s seismically unsafe. (Cue Yogi Berra: “Deja vu all over again.”)
The forthcoming demolition of the viaduct would probably have required a temporary shutdown of the waterfront streetcar, if it hadn’t already been “temporarily” shut down five years ago when its modest maintenance barn was ripped down for an outdoor sculpture garden and Metro — Seattle’s transit agency — kept finding excuses not to build a temporary replacement maintenance facility. (As we told Metro at the time, the cheap and simple facility created at Duboce and Market for the Trolley Festivals of the 1980s worked just fine for five years.)
The New York firm tasked with designing the reborn Alaskan Way (the freeway traffic is going into a tunnel) said last year they’d prefer pedicabs (those tourist contraptions you see on The Embarcadero) to vintage streetcars as part of the plan, but the City of Seattle now says streetcars may possibly fit into that new streetscape after all. But maybe modern ones, as on the other planned Seattle lines, instead of the Melbourne trams.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Times published an update saying that Metro is now listening to offers for its five ex-Melbourne trams, and that interests from St. Louis were out last week to kick the tires and may make an offer.
If there is a lesson here, we think it’s this: you cannot take what you have for granted. That’s especially true of projects driven to initial success by a single champion or a small group, no matter how much power they might have had at the time. You have to build an enduring constituency for such projects, both bottom-up (from merchants and neighborhood groups that benefit) and top-down (from elected officials, transit board members, etc.) The Seattle experience shows what can happen otherwise.
By the way, we (Market Street Railway) did consider the possibility of trying to acquire the Seattle trams awhile back, but believed Seattle supporters of George Benson’s dream should have every chance to resurrect the service there.
For the record, the five Melbourne trams are said to be in good condition, with the doors on one side sealed off (meaning they would have to operate as single-end cars in San Francisco or be restored to their original configuration. With open-platform center entrances, they require two operators, a significant cost consideration. And they would require significant electrical work to be put into service. (Similar work on Muni’s second Melbourne tram, No. 916, being done as the stretched-thin maintenance team has time, started more than two years ago, and is still not done.)
MSR continues to believe — and advocate — that the highest priority should be completing restoration of streetcars Muni already has. We specifically would like to see four streetcars in Muni’s possession restored that are double-ended and can be operated by a single-person crew: 1924 Market Street Railway Company home-built streetcar No. 798, 1923 New Orleans “Streetcar Named Desire” No. 913, 1926 Johnstown, Pennsylvania streetcar No. 351, and 1927 Osaka, Japan tram No. 151.
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