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November 17, 2005

Streetcars Are History

Trolley_1 An interesting bit of local history in the Seattle P-I.

By 1892 Seattle was crisscrossed with 48 miles of electric railway and 22 miles of cable railway, stretching from Georgetown to Ballard. According to state historian Walter Crowley, the construction of the streetcar routes segued into smart new development:

...developers platted new neighborhoods clustered around compact business districts at street railway intersections, built broad avenues such as Westlake, Madison and 15th Northwest, and opened attractive parks at Golden Gardens, Alki Beach and Guy Phinney's former Woodland Estate to lure residents and riders.

Unfortunately, the streetcar city was not long for this world. After losing money for years the city bought the lines--under circumstances so suspicious that a grand jury authorized an investigation. The city eventually ceded authority to the state and by 1941 Seattle was without streetcars, ushering in an era of auto-dominated transportation, with a small emphasis on buses.

And in that short history are a number of explanations for our current transportation problems.

It's probably no coincidence that in the post-WWII era Seattle's neighborhoods spread far and wide. And with ever less emphasis on density and integrating commercial centers into residential settings.

But the most interesting feature of streetcar history may be the reminder of how mutable our transportation infrastructure is. The car is by far the dominant mode nowadays, but it wasn't always and it may not always be so. New plans for streetcars, light rail, bus rapid transit, pedestrian-oriented streets, and even the now-dead monorail may signal a coming seismic shift in transportation planning. And while people may complain about a profusion of transit agencies today, we should remember that Seattle once had no fewer than 22 competing streetcar lines.

The other interesting facet of streetcar history is how quickly they were surplused for not making a profit. That is, the trolley lines suffered the same fate of our lately departed monorail. What an odd double-standard that is: transit must pay its way, but the car should be feted with tax dollars.

When was the last time that I-405 or the Alaska Way Viaduct made a profit?

Oh that's right. Never.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink


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Not to rub it in (OK, maybe JUST a little, out of inter-city rivalry), but I think you're right to be wistful yet hopeful about alternative transpo in Seattle--because Portland's streetcar is doing well.

I reference a new study here, at Also Also.

What was, can be again. Keep plugging!

Posted by: torridjoe | Nov 17, 2005 1:41:14 PM

When was the last time you saw the public paying for the elevators in a building?

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Nov 17, 2005 2:28:37 PM

Great, Walter!

If you'll excuse me, I have to get out of the way of all those stampeding private contractors rushing to build public transportation, and the banks willing to fund the risk...

Posted by: Dan Staley | Nov 17, 2005 4:56:50 PM

I love rail transit but any subsidy to the farebox must come from those directly benefitted. The benefit of not having as many cars on the road should not be counted because every car on the road pays for the road.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Nov 20, 2005 11:43:58 AM

because every car on the road pays for the road

You're joking, right? Looking at all federal, state and local expenditures on highways, gas taxes only cover 35 percent. Sixty-one percent of highway expenses are covered by vehicle taxes (whether the car is on the road or not), property taxes, income taxes and bonds. That doesn't begin to account for expenditures on police and emergency services, and the costs of pollution and other externalities. So people who drive more are subsidized by those who drive less.

Gas taxes don't cover municipal street expenditures, so people who mostly use highways are subsidized by people who mostly use urban streets.

The spatial inequities are huge. The American landscape is the result of a century of state and federal highway investments directed to suburban and rural areas, consistently shortchanging urban areas. Why are the great urban thoroughfare projects so scarce -- the urban tunnels and bridges of the 19th and early 20th centuries that are works of civic art as well as infrastructure? Because the money went to gold-plated highway projects serving rural areas and sprawl on the metropolitan fringes.

In addition, state and local formulas for distributing highway funds are often biased. Therefore, many urban areas contribute significantly more in tax receipts than they receive in state highway fund allocations or local transfers.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach | Nov 20, 2005 12:26:49 PM

Laurence, check the value of property without highway access.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Nov 20, 2005 8:05:50 PM

Walter, in this country, roads are not created such that the users must pay fees to enter them. All people, therefore, pay for roads. Your comment to Laurence does nothing to address what Laurence said.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Nov 21, 2005 10:13:22 AM

I don't understand what you said, Stan. When you subdivide a property you are generally required to dedicate the half street in front of your house to a street. Allocation of road and highway costs is, being political, often faulty, but so is every other political act.
Property without street access is, usually, worthless, so counting the money spent on streets and highways as a debit rather than an asset is dishonest or stupid, take your pick.

Posted by: Walter_E_Wallis | Nov 25, 2005 7:36:31 AM

"Money spent" is by definition a debit, Walter. Every city and county council in the nation will agree to that.

The issue of property values is irrelevant. Two people with the same property appraisal and property tax can have very different driving habits. The one who drives a lot is subsidized by the one who drives a little.

I think you are essentially agreeing with this when you say allocation of road and highway costs is often faulty. But you wave that away by saying it's just a political act like every other. Meanwhile transit subsidies, in your view, must be strictly forbidden. How about some equal treatment instead?

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach | Nov 25, 2005 8:48:27 PM