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Originally published May 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 21, 2007 at 4:26 PM

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South Lake Union streetcar making tracks

With streetcar track work at the halfway point, new office and condominium construction along the route holds the promise of thousands of potential riders.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

When the city of Seattle decided two years ago to build a streetcar line at South Lake Union, many residents called the project a frill.

Since then, the landscape has changed. It's all torn up.

Track construction on the $51 million project has reached the halfway point, as if synchronized with all the new offices, biotech labs and condominium buildings now being built along the 1.3-mile route, from the Westin Hotel to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

The formerly quiet district of apartments and warehouses suddenly looks like someplace where thousands of potential riders might appear.

Since 2005, about 920 housing units have been built within a few blocks of the line, while 1,550 homes and 1.7 million square feet of office space are under construction, said Michael Mann, transportation adviser to Mayor Greg Nickels.

"This is a pleasant surprise. It's been developing faster than expected," said City Council President Nick Licata, who opposed the streetcar and remains worried about the rising costs to operate it.

Will these newcomers pay $1.50 at rush hour to take a short trip, at an average 9 to 10 mph? The city should find out soon after the streetcar's grand opening in December.

The city has made a loose ridership estimate of 1,000 trips a day next year, and more than 2,800 when the neighborhood is fully developed, by 2020. By then, there will be 16,000 new jobs and 8,000 more residents in the area, the city predicts.

The streetcar is expected to attract workers who are going to a meeting nearby, or heading out to lunch -- and don't feel like looking for parking.

Angelina Saez, who works at Sub Pop Records downtown, doesn't like the bus but said she definitely would take the streetcar to new restaurants in South Lake Union.

"I'm excited. I just can't wait for it to happen," she said, eating a salad on the steps outside Whole Foods at Westlake Avenue and Denny Way. Nearby, a streetcar contractor's rotary saw screeched through the concrete.

Saez and her boyfriend, Minos Spyridakis, said they're condo shopping and will include South Lake Union in their search. They said they would use the streetcar three or four times a week.

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Park being rebuilt

Meanwhile, the city is rebuilding South Lake Union Park, where a streetcar stop is expected to handle event crowds.

Vanessa Iles of Kent, petting a white duck along the shore, said she would ride the streetcar for "weekend stuff with the kids," so her family could park the car nearby, then explore part of the city by transit.

The streetcar will be marketed as a tourist attraction, a role buses can't fill, said Jim Jacobson, deputy manager for King County Metro Transit, which will operate the streetcars.

"There'll be a buzz. It's different," he said.

City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck hopes the line will help solve what might be called the "last mile" quandary for commuters.

He explains: Around 70 percent of employees in South Lake Union drive alone to work, but after the streetcar link is open, they could set out from the outskirts of town on an express bus or, in the future, on light rail, then switch to a streetcar at the Westlake Center transit hub -- for the last leg of the commute.

Lena Tian, an occasional bus rider who works at ZymoGenetics, said the streetcar won't help her. A drive from her Bothell home to Lake Union still will be quicker than taking a bus to Westlake Center, then backtracking north via streetcar, she said.

"It doesn't save much time, if you have to go from downtown to here," she said.

In the afternoon, every minute counts, because of her child-care pickup deadline. What she really needs is an express bus straight to South Lake Union.

Nearby success stories

Streetcar boosters point to nearby stories of success.

Sound Transit's free streetcar in downtown Tacoma beat expectations by averaging 2,835 trips a day, or triple what a downtown bus carried.

Portland's streetcar carries 9,000 riders a day and has steadily extended its route. Officials call it a "development-oriented streetcar," because the project helped transform an old railroad yard into the trendy Pearl District.

The Seattle line will share road lanes with automobiles, except at the lake, where the tracks go inside the park instead of on congested Valley Street. Streetcars will have priority to cross at traffic signals.

But if the streetcars are spaced 15 minutes apart, and mingle with traffic, people might as well walk, skeptics say.

Licata faults the city for not emulating Tacoma, where the streetcar runs in its own median right of way. In Seattle, supporters got political traction by proposing the cheaper in-street design.

The city strived to hold down costs as part of its promise to avoid taking money from other services for the streetcar -- a project some critics portrayed as a favor to billionaire Paul Allen's Vulcan, the biggest landowner along the route.

"They wanted it so badly, I think they cut corners in too many areas," Licata said.

The city could boost ridership by offering free trips, so people won't have to fumble for change, said Monty Holmes, president of Athletic Awards, near the line.

Fares won't cover the expected operating costs, which have increased to $2 million a year -- which amounts to more than $5 per ride at the outset. Operating costs will be partly covered by advertising on streetcars and stations; Evergreen Bank, Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center and City Investors have signed deals to sponsor the line's three streetcars (two will run at a time, plus a spare). Most of the operating costs are expected to be covered by the city for the first couple of years, then mainly by Metro Transit.

About half of the $51 million cost for construction and streetcars will be paid by a property tax on landowners nearby, while the rest will come from city funds, including federal aid.

The taxpayers' half of the construction cost makes this a relatively small-stakes venture, in light of $37 billion in regional road and transit projects headed to this fall's ballot. It's also far less than the $124 million taxpayers spent to plan and promote the ultimately canceled Green Line monorail.

Mann views the streetcar as virtually a no-lose proposition.

"So what if we don't meet expectations and ridership is half of what we expect? We're still moving people, and still attracting development into a compact urban setting," he said. "That is environmentally the best thing we can do for the planet."

If nothing else, the streetcar adds four trips every hour into downtown.

When the Route 70 bus is late to reach Fairview Avenue North, rider Cora Morales says she will gladly walk three blocks to catch a streetcar at Westlake. "They have to give us options!" she said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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