They threw a parade when Tacoma’s streetcars made their last run down Broadway in June 1938. The next day, buses took over.
Nearly 70 years later, city officials are following the lead of other West Coast cities, including Portland and Seattle, and beginning to talk seriously about rebuilding a streetcar network in Tacoma.
It would likely start small, and it could take several years before there’s any parade for a new streetcar system. But a city feasibility study concluded that a new streetcar network could be built.
“If we could do it 100 years ago, we can do it now,” said Steve Shanafelt, manager of Tacoma’s public works engineering division.
An advisory committee that included officials from Pierce Transit and Sound Transit has identified three possible beginning routes:
• Sixth Avenue Line – Beginning where the Link light rail ends on Commerce Street, it would climb up the hill and connect to the east end of the city’s burgeoning restaurant row.
• Downtown Line – A serpentine line crisscrossing north and south through the core of downtown, possibly with one east-west connector going up and down the hill along South 11th Street.
• Portland Line – Beginning where the Link light rail ends on East 25th Street, it would run along Portland Avenue toward the new Salishan neighborhood on Tacoma’s East Side.
The committee concluded that streetcars would help promote economic development, provide an environmentally sensitive alternative to cars, and give a needed service to low-income residents, the elderly and disabled, and students.
All of the details still need to be determined, including precise routes, the order in which they would be built, the style of streetcar, and funding. The routes identified by the advisory committee were not proposed routes, Shanafelt emphasized, merely possible routes based on previous locations. A substantial public process would be needed, he said.
At a recent study session, Councilman Tom Stenger, a backer of streetcars, asked city staff to prepare a resolution for the City Council adopting the advisory committee’s report, and outlining the next steps. That could include hiring a consultant to determine such details as potential ridership figures and cost estimates, City Manager Eric Anderson told The News Tribune.
Anderson said the city’s feasibility study was pretty basic: It didn’t take the committee long, he said, to conclude that a streetcar system could be built. The hard work remains to be done.
Still, Anderson said he expects that streetcars will be an important piece in Tacoma’s ongoing effort to create a comprehensive parking strategy for downtown.
“It feels doable,” Anderson said of streetcars. “I can’t tell you how yet, but it feels doable.”
The city manager’s embrace of the idea adds momentum to a discussion that began more than a year ago as a grass-roots effort led by Morgan Alexander, a commercial real estate consultant. Alexander started a Web site promoting the return of a Tacoma streetcar, www.tacomastreetcar.org, and began lobbying public officials. A streetcar system could help reduce traffic and auto emissions and reconnect the city’s neighborhoods, he said.
Alexander said he’s pleased with the committee’s report, though he wishes people would move beyond just expressing interest in the idea and become vocal cheerleaders.
The city’s advisory committee focused its report on electric-powered cars running on tracks in the street, though other models include diesel and biodiesel-powered cars running on rubber wheels.
A streetcar system would likely run on a less expensive and less robust track system than Sound Transit’s 1.6-mile Link light rail line downtown.
The Link tracks and infrastructure were designed to accommodate heavier light-rail trains, though the system now uses modern streetcars. Tacoma’s streetcars might look similar to the Link trains or might have a vintage trolley design.
The report didn’t address the potential cost of a streetcar system, but it noted the cost of some other systems. They range from $3 million per track mile in Kenosha, Wis., to $19.4 million per track mile for Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar.
Seattle broke ground last summer on a 1.3-mile streetcar line connecting South Lake Union with Westlake. It’s scheduled to begin operating late this year. Portland’s streetcar, which fired up in 2001 and has since expanded to 7.2 miles, cost $11.5 million per track mile. By comparison, Sound Transit’s 1.6-mile Link light rail in Tacoma cost $30 million per track mile.
It’s unclear how a new Tacoma streetcar would be funded.
Tacoma’s original streetcar network began operating in the late 1880s, and included lines to virtually every section of town and beyond, including Puyallup, American Lake, Camp Murray and Steilacoom. Horses pulled the first Tacoma streetcars, and electric-powered streetcars began a couple of years later.
By 1914, there were 125 miles of street car trackage in Tacoma, according to an article in the October 1978 edition of “The Trainsheet,” official publication of the Tacoma Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society.
The article’s author, Robert E. Paine, recalled riding the cars as a young boy.
“We would swing and sway the cable way as we rode up and down Tacoma’s steep hills,” he said. “They were noisy, with their clicks and bangs on the rails, and with their warning bells, but they were, for the most part, a very efficient means of transportation.”
STREET CARS VS. LIGHT RAIL
“Streetcar” and “light rail” are sometimes used interchangeably, but represent variations on electric urban transit.
Streetcars are smaller-capacity vehicles, operating at street level alongside pedestrians and autos, with frequent stops and easy access. A streetcar track requires less infrastructure and costs less because the cars are lighter. Cars can have a modern or a vintage trolley design.
Light rail is designed to carry more people quickly over longer distances. It typically has its own right-of-way and station platforms separated from traffic. Multiple rail cars may be joined together to increase capacity. Because light rail uses heavier cars, it needs a more expensive, heavier-duty infrastructure.
What’s Tacoma Link? The 1.6-mile downtown system has elements of both – it’s essentially a streetcar operating on a light-rail track. Eventually, the tracks will hook into Sound Transit’s regional Link light-rail system. Those heavier cars used by the regional light rail will be able to navigate Tacoma’s downtown tracks because they are built to the higher standard.
Sources: American Public Transportation Association; Tuscon (Ariz.) Department of Transportation; Sound Transit