The Waterfront Streetcar's Second Run

A tourist-friendly transportation alternative is primed for a resurrection.

In late 2005, the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar's maintenance barn was razed to clear space for the Olympic Sculpture Park at the northernmost portal to the downtown Seattle waterfront. At that point, streetcar service was officially suspended until Metro could construct a new maintenance facility for the vintage trolley. The term "suspended" boasts a dark connotation, but it portends a light at the end of the tunnel. The green and gold streetcar, it seemed at the time, would soon chime again, ferrying jolly tourists along its dedicated Alaskan Way track and into the bowels of Chinatown at no cost to the traveler. Yet nearly six years later, Metro has no intention of breaking ground on that replacement maintenance facility on account of the viaduct's imminent toppling, and streetcar service remains officially suspended, replaced by the Route 99 bus and detained indefinitely in the civic equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. While the streetcar has its devotees, there has been little to no public outcry concerning its state of limbo. Seattleites, the city learned, despise the waterfront's current bent toward touristy kitsch, an environment which the jolly old trolley only served to enhance. "When we talked to the public back in February, we heard very strongly that people were very interested in getting access to the water," says Steve Pearce, the city's Waterfront Project Manager. "They wanted new public spaces that were close to the water, views of the water, opportunities to touch the water. They didn't want view-blocking structures, and they didn't want to see a lot of tourist-oriented uses." So there you have it: Not only is the state's tourism office toast, but pro-immigrant Seattle is xenophobic as all hell when it spots an unfamiliar human climbing off the Bay Pavilion carousel with binoculars around his neck. You'd think these factors would finally clarify the streetcar's future, with the "suspended" label mercifully changed to "extinguished." But that's simply not what's happening: The city's waterfront-redesign team, led by James Corner of High Line (NYC) fame, notes in an FAQ that "the future of the waterfront streetcar will be determined during the design process"—a process that won't be completed until sometime in 2012. "One of the things we recognized is the waterfront is a difficult place to get to today," says Pearce, whose team recently unveiled a series of wildly ambitious possibilities for a revamped waterfront, including "thermal pools"—public hot tubs—near Puget Sound. "We're going to need something to get people to get up and down the waterfront. One idea is the historic streetcar, but you could do a more modern streetcar like we have in South Lake Union. Our lead designer wants to look at something more flexible, lighter, and green—like a small solar-powered vehicle or something like that, sort of a moving- sidewalk concept, where you could hop on and hop off very easily." Hence, the streetcar is left with a one-in-three chance of being put back into service, pitted against the spawn of SLUT and an ambiguous robo-car of the sort George Jetson might favor. Clearly, in the interest of bolstering tourism in a state which is soon to lack a tourism agency, the jolly trolley would be the least intimidating option for visitors in a city that seemingly wants to do all it can to intimidate visitors. Hey, it might be a convoluted path to resurrection, but it sure beats Gitmo.

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