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A “Loopy ” Transit Idea that Makes Sense

He retired from the Seattle City Council three years ago and sold the family’s pharmacy on Capitol Hill soon afterwards, but he has not retired from his work with streetcars. At least one early morning a week, you will find George Benson, 78, down on the waterfront picking up trash along the tracks or over at the car barn shining glass lenses on the headlamps of the city’s vintage streetcars.

Why such devotion? “It’s my baby!” George exclaims.

Indeed, it is. Back in 1974 Councilman Benson had the idea that Seattle should retrieve part of its abandoned transportation heritage, streetcars. Not “trolleys” that run on wires, mind you, but real streetcars that run on tracks. Like other American cities, Seattle once had an intricate web of them, including an “Interurban” that could take you to Everett or Tacoma in about the time you can make it now in an auto at rush hour. The automotive lobby long ago seduced Seattle and most other cities into abandoning streetcars, and only in recent years have modern variations on the old theme begun to return to fashionability. But rare are the lucky burgs with old fashioned, strap-hanging, bell-clanging streetcars. New Orleans. Philadelphia. San Francisco, of course.

And, thanks to George Benson, Seattle. On one short line from the Myrtle Edwards Park at the north end of the waterfront, along Alaska Way to Pioneer Square and on to the International District, Metro operates five beautifully restored vehicles that together carry nearly 500,000 passengers a year. Many passengers take advantage of Seattle’s general policy of free transit within downtown (a policy also dating to the ’70’s). But another large group–177,971, to be exact–are paying customers, most of them tourists taking in the sights.

There were other municipal advocates of a new/old streetcar route back in 1974. But it was George Benson, the enthusiast, who persevered with such detailed attention that all obstacles (lack of local car stock, the need for businesses to support a local improvement district, safety concerns, and on and on) gradually were overcome–after only eight and a half years of effort.

I was one of George’s colleagues on the Council, and now I am an occasional customer of his streetcars, which I find ideal for showing visitors our town. So when we talked at a recent dinner for former and present Council members, I told Geroge I had a dream that I bet he shared: to extend the current one-way, back and forth route into a loop. With a loop line, passengers could expand the current trip to the waterfront, Pioneer Square, the Kingdome and the International District into a grander tour of downtown, adding the Municipal and County buildings, the financial district, the art museum, the forthcoming symphony hall, hotels, and shopping opportunities around Westlake Mall and the Convention Center, followed by a jaunt across the newly trendy Denny Regrade to Seattle Center before heading back to the waterfront for another loop.

I was right. George lit up like a streetcar beacon. A loop route is his secret passion. We have been talking precise routes ever since. It’s a game anyone can play, so readers are invited to share their concepts, too. But in this game there are a couple of rules. For one, these streetcars cannot go down a steep incline, so east-west routes in the center of our hilly downtown won’t work. For another, many motorists are made nervous by the strangeness of a streetcar next to them, so a new route should not cram streetcars and autos too closely together. Beyond all, safety must prevail. People are used to dodging cars, but not streetcars–despite the ringing bells.

It isn’t hard to find fault with the idea. Because so many passengers travel free, the present route doesn’t pay for itself directly. (Of course, neither do buses downtown.) A loop route might attract still more passengers, but it is hard to see it breaking even under present pricing arrangements. Also, the Engineering Department, which must guide any new development, is anxious about congestion that may eventuate as new tracks head back through busy north/south avenues.
A little imagination and Bensonian grit in the current city leadership might help at this point. Perhaps the streetcar route could go through the bus tunnel under Third Avenue. Perhaps a little longer trip at the north end of a loop, along Denny Way past the Pacific Science Center to Bay Street, would provide a sufficiently gradual grade to assure streetcar traction. Perhaps the relatively high ridership of the system would allow its integration into the new regional and intermodal transit plan and help cover startup costs.

Certainly a streetcar loop would be popular with visitors, and, in fact, maybe all of us who use it should–on this one downtown run–pay the going cost. To have the pleasure of getting from one attractive destination to another on an easy-to-comprehend streetcar loop would make Seattle’s downtown even more appealing, especially in the rain–for locals as well as tourists. Starting, of course, with George Benson.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.