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Friday, July 7, 2006 - Page updated at 08:06 AM

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Seattle breaking ground today for South Lake Union streetcar

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle is taking a small step to ease its Portland envy by breaking ground today on a modern streetcar line for South Lake Union.

The $51 million project symbolizes, and could promote, the transformation of a sleepy old business district into a cluster of high-rise condos and biotech labs. The South Lake Union area is projected to gain 20,000 jobs and 17,000 residents by the year 2020.

The city predicts that when the line opens in fall 2007, about 300,000 people a year will ride the 1.3-mile route between the Westin Hotel and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Trains would arrive 15 minutes apart.

Biotech workers will hop the train to lunch, supporters hope, or commute from a condo instead of hassling with a car or bus. The project was promoted by billionaire Paul Allen, whose Vulcan firm is a large landowner there; the city believes a streetcar will boost property values throughout the neighborhood.

Mayor Greg Nickels said the system is modeled on Portland's streetcar lines, which serve downtown and the revived Pearl District.

By Seattle standards, the project was easy politically to launch. Landowners near the tracks are paying half the cost through a neighborhood property tax, and construction should take just over a year.

Some elected leaders are dreaming bigger. They hope streetcars will spread to the Chinatown International District, First Hill, the University of Washington, or perhaps across Belltown to reach the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar.

"I think more areas are going to want it, once it's up and running," said state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chair of the House Transportation Committee.

The streetcars will use the same lanes as automobiles on Westlake Avenue, stopping for traffic signals. Passengers will board from the sidewalk. Doors will be near street level for easy boarding, and electric signs will indicate when the next train is due.

Meanwhile, Westlake will change from three northbound lanes to a two-way, four-lane street, north of Denny Way. Near the lake, the streetcar will follow abandoned railroad tracks off the street, then move back into traffic in the center of Fairview Avenue North, at the Hutch.

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The streetcar will move faster than the waterfront trolley, but not as briskly as Sound Transit's $80 million downtown Tacoma streetcar, which travels mostly in its own right of way on a street median.

"You could practically walk the entire route more quickly than it will take to get from one end of the route to another," said opponent John Fox, coordinator of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, who believes South Lake Union development is pushing out affordable apartments and small businesses.

Seattle could have built a faster train line like Tacoma's, but Nickels said he's satisfied mixing trains with auto traffic, as in Portland.

"It's much quicker to build, much less disruption to the surrounding community, and obviously it's much less expensive as well," Nickels said.

City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, an early skeptic, said Thursday that train lines should be built away from car traffic, but this route is so short, it won't make much difference.

Barring a huge cost overrun, the streetcar won't need general-fund money from the taxpayers, the city says. Half the expenses are covered by a neighborhood tax on 760 parcels (including Seattle Times property), while the rest is expected from regional and federal grants, advertising on trains and stations, and sales of city-owned lands.

However, the future costs to run the streetcar could drain money from the city's bus lines. King County Metro, which will run the streetcar and its bus network, is expected to cover the line's operating losses, said Jim Jacobson, deputy general manager. Transit lines usually require a subsidy.

Fox said millions of dollars could have gone toward more critical needs, instead of what he called "a frill" to raise land values for Vulcan and other big landowners. Fox says at least 40 businesspeople oppose a streetcar tax but figured they couldn't fight City Hall.

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

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