Affordable Streetcar: Seattle's Waterfront Streetcar

February 19, 2009 12 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Operating from 1982 through 2005, Seattle's George Benson Waterfront Streetcar line is an example of a single track streetcar system successfully operating on a single track with passing sidings. Constructing a similar system locally could reduce the cost of implementing rail transit in Jacksonville.

About the Waterfront Streetcar

Seattle's George Benson Waterfront Streetcar is a 2-mile single-track line with two passing sidings. It utilizes a former freight line through the city's central waterfront district as well as a .4 mile extension in city streets to reach the International District, where it connects with the downtown transit tunnel and the Amtrak station, and is a short walk away from the new ballpark. The system operates five double-ended streetcars imported from Melbourne, with up to three cars running at one time. Each of these rebuilt 1924-vintage cars can carry up to 43 seated and 40 standing passengers, and have accommodations for one wheelchair. The line uses high-level platforms exclusively, all of which are on the same side of the track. The cars have thus been rebuilt without the original running boards and step-up entry, and have been reconfigured with doors on only one side. 

Conceived in 1974 as an easily-implemented tourist amenity, the idea quickly encountered a series of political, regulatory and other obstacles. Operation of the initial 1.6 mile leg finally began in May 1982, with a .4 mile extension in 1990. In 1998 the line was thoroughly rebuilt including installation of concrete ties. The line is operated by King County Metro as its Route 99, and uses exclusively paid staff.  Two-person crews are standard practice, and fare collection is on board the cars utilizing traditional fareboxes. The fare structure is standardized with other King County Metro Services. Off-peak fares are $1.25, and Peak fares are $1.50. Although the streetcar line runs through the Downtown "Ride Free Area", a one-zone fare is collected at all times. Transfers good for 90 minutes are available at no additional charge, permitting riders to hop on and off as they choose, making the streetcar a great way to see the sights along the waterfront. The Waterfront Streetcar carried 450,000 passengers in 2000.


Seattle rail transit route map by The Streetcar Alliance and Seattle P-I at

Service suspended on November 29, 2005

Improvements to downtown Seattle's north waterfront area, including construction of the Olympic Sculpture Park and work on the northern end of the seawall, have necessitated the temporary suspension of the George Benson Line Waterfront Streetcar vintage Trolley service.

Metro is providing replacement service with free service on Route 99 Waterfront Streetcar Line buses. Bus routing and stop locations do not exactly duplicate the Streetcar, however Route 99 serves the same neighborhoods - the Waterfront, Pioneer Square and Chinatown/International District.

King County Metro is currently working on plans to restore the vintage streetcars to active service. This project is dependent on many factors, including construction of a new maintenance facility and decisions that are yet to be made about the Alaskan Way Viaduct.


With the addition of an urban rail system, developments like the one above could be become common in Jacksonville.  Images by kldeutschman at

Image by kenofseattle at


Streetcars and urban infill development go hand-in-hand.  Image by John Smatlak at


Pike Street stop.  Image by mjochim at


Named one of the 10 Great Streetcar routes

With an annual operational budget of $1.3 million, the route has been named by National Geographic Society as one of the 10 Great Streetcar routes along with:

Berlin (Berlin Straßenbahn) Tram 68
Lisbon's Companhia de Carris de Ferro de Lisboa (Carris) 28 Tram

Toronto's 501 Queen (TTC)

New Orleans Regional Transit Authority's St. Charles Avenue Line
Hong Kong Tramways

San Francisco Municipal Railway's F Market & Wharves line


 The Waterfront Streetcar corridor includes a parallel pedestrian/bike greenway.  Something similar could be possible with rail and Jacksonville's S-Line.  Image by kenb at

Image by City of Seattle at

A stop located in the center of a street.   If the JEDC decides to add medians to Bay Street, consideration should be given to making them wide enough to accommodate JTA's streetcar plans.  Image by kevin boyd at

Eager residents await the arrival of a streetcar.  Image by Oran Viriyincy at

Passing sidings eliminate the need to immediately double track a streetcar corridor.  Not double tracking can reduce the implementation costs of such a system by as much as 1/2.  Image by Oran Viryincy at


Metro's green and yellow waterfront streetcars were built in Australia for the Melborne and Metropolitan Tramways Board between 1925 and 1930. The cars are double end, double truck, and designed for two-person operation.

Manufacturer: Melborne shops or James Moore
Fleet Numbers: 272, 482, 512, 518, 605
Seats: 43 passengers
Length: 48 feet
Special Features:
Station platforms built to accommodate wheelchair riders

An image of the Bell Street stop by neitech at

The impending demolition of the Alaskan Way elevated freeway could possibly keep the Waterfront Streetcar service suspended until 2018.  Image by neitech at

Running the streetcar line down the center of streets allows two-way travel without immediately investing in parallel one-way track.  Image by neitech at

An in-street passing siding.  Image by neitech at


Despite being located in a former industrial area and adjacent to a double deck freeway, the streetcar has helped convert Seattle's waterfront into a vibrant atmosphere.

This image highlights how a streetcar system could be designed with a linear urban park like setting in mind.  Image by flickr neitech at


A streetcar and freight train side by side.  Image by neitech at

A streetcar approaching a pedestrian crossing.  Image by neitech at

Two streetcars in the process of passing each other.  Image by neitech at


The Seattle system serves as an example of an urban streetcar system successfully operating without the need for taxpayers to immediately pay for double tracking. The reduced amount of track used results in a decrease in the price per mile for rail.  This would allow for an initial system that can link the downtown core with adjacent urban core neighborhoods for a more affordable price.  With limited dedicated financial resources available, the single track option should be considered for Jacksonville's proposed system.

Article by Ennis Davis