Seattle, long known for its progressive tendencies, is only now starting to embrace a 21st century transportation network. Two freeways cut through downtown and the one-third of commuters face potential bus service cuts, but optimistically there is an increasing amount of people walking and biking to work.
Additionally, from 2010 to 2012 commuting by rail increased 20 percent. This is partly due to Link Light Rail, operated by the regional Sound Transit agency, and which runs between Westlake Center in downtown to the SeaTac airport. The trains look like light rail cars but operate similar commuter rail, running at high speeds in separated right-of-ways (with the exception of the Third Avenue transit tunnel). Voter-approved extensions to the north and south are in design and construction.
There is also the Seattle Streetcar Network, owned by the city, which opened in 2007 with a single line from Westlake Center to South Lake Union. A second line is under construction from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill and due to open in Spring 2014. After that, however, the future of the city-owned network depends on the upcoming mayoral election.
Mayor Mike McGinn, in office since 2010, is the only supporter of continued streetcar expansion in the upcoming election. He worked on the Transit Master Plan that proposes more streetcar lines to connect city neighborhoods, but he has been criticized for not specifying funding sources. According to the Seattle Times election guide, McGinn’s eight opponents either want to defer to Sound Transit’s regional plans or focus on roads first. Ed Murray, for instance, “supports light rail, but wants to expand it regionally through Sound Transit. That means a 2016 regional ballot measure would fund any major Seattle expansion.” And then there is Charlie Staadecker, who says “the city should fix aging infrastructure before it thinks about light rail”.
Although any public transit is better than none, light rail and streetcars have demonstrated advantages in their ongoing American renaissance. The Transit Master Plan embraces this by creating a streetcar network that serves multiple destinations and covers a wide geographical area, while Link Light Rail is only planning to expand in a major north-south corridor and across Lake Washington to Bellevue and Redmond. Yes, the region is already extensively served by the King County Metro bus system, but a streetcars create create a permanent, visible route that is economically attractive to developers, residents, and tourists alike; just look to Portland for a regional example.
Seattle will not suffer extensively if the new mayor, whoever it is, does not go forward with the streetcar plans, but there are enormous tangible and intangible potentials for the Emerald City to create a more robust and unique urban transportation network that should not be ignored.