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Thursday, December 13, 2007
Last updated 12:06 a.m. PT

Scott Eklund / P-I
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels hosted a ceremony starting at 11:30 a.m. and the first streetcar embarked from the Westlake Hub at 12:12 p.m. Here the purple streetcar is packed on the first day of service.

For better or worse, streetcars are back

South Lake Union line debuts with dignitaries and critics


Seattle has a streetcar again.

The 1.3-mile, $52.1 million South Lake Union line opened for business Wednesday amid speeches and pomp, ferrying hundreds back and forth between Westlake Center and the lake.

As transit advocates celebrated, and Mayor Greg Nickels and other dignitaries extolled its virtues before a crowd of more than 300, a few wondered about the wisdom of the investment.

The first car rolled out of Westlake Center at 12:15 p.m. carrying the mayor and more than 60 other VIPs. A second car left about a half-hour later packed with at least 125 riders. A third car was similarly jammed when it left shortly after 1 p.m.

The line, long sought by billionaire developer and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, is designed to serve those living in thousands of new homes, several major new businesses and new development.

Many streetcar lines once served the city, but the last of them was torn out in 1941 after years of financial decline and the advent of the automobile. A line began in 1982 along the waterfront, but that was suspended when construction of the Olympic Sculpture Park on Broad Street forced closure of the car barn. The cars were put into storage, and its future is uncertain.

Nickels and other officials said the electrically powered South Lake Union line will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and shows how joint public-private investments can work.

Nickels compared it historically to the start of Pike Place Market, Children's Hospital and major city annexations, part of creating cities with fewer cars and "part of something larger."

Later, referring to the line's mocking nickname -- the South Lake Union Trolley, or SLUT -- Nickels quipped to the crowd: "I don't care what you call it, as long as you ride it."

Tamblyn Alexander, a Fremont resident who came to the inauguration carrying her son Charles, 4, said: "It's great. I hope it works out."

Transit buffs came out by the dozens to take the first rides. "It was a huge mistake to rip out the streetcars across this country, and it was largely done by the tire industry and the oil industry," Capitol Hill resident Jon Morgan said.

Jacqueline Slorp of Lynnwood called the new line "a neat idea" as she walked her dog past a new streetcar. "It'll keep traffic down, hopefully, and get more people to ride through town and to the businesses."

The ride from the lake to Westlake Center took about 20 minutes. The cars were quieter than a diesel-powered Metro bus, and the loudest noises were human conversation and the whir of the heating system.

But skeptics showed up, too. Queen Anne resident Greg Buck came to look the cars over, calling the enterprise a "boondoggle ... they could do the same thing cheaper with a bus."

Three blocks from the streetcar line, near Fairview Avenue North, the streetcar's debut brought busy sales of the SLUT T-shirts at the Kapow Coffee shop, where entrepreneur Jeremiah St. Georges has been selling them.

Outside the shop, Andrew Filer called the line a "small start" toward developing density that will support it -- "a good idea in the long run. I like it."

But Jesika McEvoy, sporting one of St. Georges' T-shirts, was unconvinced. "Why spend a lot of money on something that doesn't go very fast and stops at every stoplight? It seems like Paul Allen should have funded this exclusively ... the only ones benefiting are him and a couple of retailers."

Wednesday evening, Michael Snyder of Seattle Likes Bikes, which campaigns for better biking measures, helped organize a ride attended by about 40 bicyclists to protest the dangers of streetcars.

The gap created by the track can catch a bike tire and cause the bike to flip, Snyder said. "Multiple people have broken bones off this already."

Bicyclists have been trained to use the right side of the road, he said, adding that the city has not listened to the biking community, which has been concerned for years about where the tracks would go.

"We like transit, and it would be stupid to think they would rip up the tracks that they've already put down," Snyder said. "Our hope is that the future tracks are in the center of the road."


P-I reporter Casey McNerthney contributed to this report. P-I reporter Larry Lange can be reached at 206-448-8313 or
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