Bizarrely, Seattle’s new 2.1 km. demonstration streetcar line has the unhappy acronym of S.L.U.T. or South Lake Union Trolley and with this unhappy name the tram has had all the pitfalls of a demonstration line that really doesn’t fulfill a transportation need. Unlike the much more successful, sadly now defunct Waterfront trolley operating vintage Melbourne trams, Seattle’s S.L.U.T. seemed to have been planned by its enemies and was designed to fail!
One hopes that the South Lake Union Trolley will soon be merges with a much larger streetcar network, but with the hybrid light rail/metro lobby and their demands for expensive subways and the monorail lobby working against the construction of real light-rail in Seattle, hope is fading rapidly for Seattle (as is happening in Vancouver) of having an affordable transit system that will be a viable alternative to the car.
The line was originally envisioned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to help improve the South Lake Union neighborhood, in which his venture capital company, Vulcan Inc., is heavily invested. Allen’s main supporter from the beginning was Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, but he was not universally supported by the Seattle City Council, which was concerned about the lack of public support for the line and questioned if it should be moved ahead of Seattle’s other transportation needs.
After heavy lobbying by South Lake Union businesses, including Vulcan, the Seattle City Council approved the development of the neighborhood into a biotechnology and bio-medical research center. Included in that plan was funding to investigate a 2.6-mile (4.2 km), US$45 million streetcar line. The line was approved in 2005 at a cost of $50.5 million, with $25 million paid by property owners along the streetcar’s route and the remainder paid by federal, state, and local funds. The majority of property owners along the alignment supported the project, despite being asked to pay increased taxes to fund its construction. Only 12 of 750 affected property owners formally objected to the proposed “Local Improvement District” tax. The project was modeled after the Portland Streetcar, a similar modern-streetcar system that had opened in Portland, Oregon, in 2001. Construction began in July 2006.
Service was inaugurated on December 12, 2007, and all rides were free until the end of the month. Streetcars run every fifteen minutes, seven days a week. The line uses three Inekon 12-Trio three-section articulated streetcars: one red, one purple, and another orange.
The system is owned by the City of Seattle, but currently is operated by King County Metro (Metro Transit) under a contract with the city government.
Local residents claim that during construction it was originally known as the South Lake Union Trolley, which abbreviates to S.L.U.T. While there is no evidence that this name was ever used as an official name, the acronym’s popularity has caused it to become an unofficial one.
The streetcar was involved in minor collisions with motor vehicles and experienced several service stoppages when it first began service.
After an initial free ride period, the city predicted 950 riders per day, or only 7.5% of the system’s capacity of about 12,600 per day. On its one year anniversary, the city announced that 507,000 people had ridden the streetcar, or 428,675 after the free ride period. That is 1,283 per day and 10.2% of capacity.
During its inaugural period, December 12, 2007 to December 31, the streetcar was free to ride. The fare was then increased to US$1.50, was later increased to $1.75, and is $2.00 per trip as of June 2009. When the streetcar was free to ride ridership was 78,325, but once a fare was charged, ridership dropped to 12,369 for the first half of January. The streetcar was again free to ride in the latter half of December 2008.