Seattle opens First Hill Streetcar line

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David Honan
Capitol Hill is famous for being the center of Seattle’s gay scene, and that status is proudly proclaimed by the rainbow-painted crosswalks at a number of intersections along Broadway. An Inbound service, pantograph down, safely ducks under the maze of trolley bus wires at Broadway & Pine on a January rainy day.
SEATTLE — Though it's been years in the making and months overdue, Seattle residents can now ride the country's newest streetcar line in the city's First Hill neighborhood.

The Seattle Department of Transportation started revenue service on the First Hill Streetcar line with a low-key “soft launch” featuring free rides on Jan. 23. Although the start of service was announced to the public only 24 hours earlier, patronage throughout the day was strong and many passengers were overheard enjoying “that new streetcar smell.”

Construction for this $135 million, 2.5-mile modern streetcar line was completed in late summer 2014, but a series of issues with vehicle delivery and commissioning delayed opening. The project was funded by Sound Transit, Puget Sound’s regional transit authority, as mitigation for elimination of a once-planned light rail station in the First Hill neighborhood. The line connects busy Pioneer Square with multiple neighborhoods in the ethnically diverse International District, then climbs its namesake hill to reach the Yesler Terrace, First Hill and Capitol Hill districts. A unique feature of the line is off-wire operation on the entire Inbound track and portions of the Outbound track: On-board batteries allow the streetcars to run with the pantograph lowered, eliminating conflict with complex trolley bus overhead power lines that intersect the streetcar contact wire. In fact, the Inbound (downhill) track was constructed with no streetcar overhead power distribution at all.

Two additional streetcar lines are in development by the transportation department: The Broadway Extension will tie into the busy commercial district north of Denny Avenue, and the Center City Connector will link the First Hill and South Lake Union lines. These projects will complete a horseshoe-shaped network connecting more than a dozen Seattle neighborhoods.
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