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Chokepoints: Seattle sacrifices two lanes for new streetcar

(File, SDOT)

Seattle is going ahead with the First Avenue streetcar project, despite the two current streetcar lines falling well below ridership expectations. Drivers are not going to like the end result.

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It’s hard enough to get around Pike Place Market or Pioneer Square now. Imagine First Avenue with fewer lanes to work with.

The City of Seattle is eliminating one northbound and one southbound lane between Stewart and Jackson to give the new streetcar its own dedicated space.

“We’re having to look at the existing right-of-way that we have, and figure out ways to make it work a little bit harder and also work smarter,” Director of Transit and Mobility Andrew Glass Hastings said. “The streetcar on First Avenue is one way that we’re doing that.”

He believes that getting rid of the car lanes will actually improve congestion.

“By cutting in half the number of general purpose travel lanes and adding the streetcar we’re actually going to increase the people-carrying capacity of First Avenue by about ten percent,” Hastings said. “We’re going to move more people with fewer lanes because of the ability to carry a lot of passengers on the streetcar.”

Hastings said the goal is to boost ridership across the streetcar network, which is currently far below original expectations. About 5,200 people a day use the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars. The city expects that to balloon to 22,000 people a day once this First Avenue line connects the two ends.

“There is a lot of either current riders or potential riders in South Lake Union that want the streetcar to go to Pike Place Market or want it to go down to Colman Dock with the ferry terminal or all the way down to Pioneer Square,” he said.

Drivers will lose all parking on First Avenue to the streetcar line. That’s about 200 spaces that are current peak-hour restricted spots. But the city was able to save all the loading zones for businesses.

“We were able to do that for the majority of the corridor,” Hastings said. “We were able to replace the loading zones that we were impacting one for one.”

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Construction is already underway on this $177 million project. Streetcars are expected to start using the dedicated lanes in late 2020. One thing to keep in mind is that these lanes will be going away about a year after the new SR 99 tunnel is available.

First Avenue will remain a four-lane configuration as drivers get used to that new reality.

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