By Janelle Wetzstein
Janelle Wetzstein is a student in the University of Washington
Department of Communication News Laboratory.
Seattle’s First Hill streetcar project is drawing concerns about safety among members of the International District community. Despite assurances from the city of little pedestrian impact, stakeholders are worried about the safety of pedestrian traffic crossing the rails, specifically on Eighth Avenue South.
Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), said the rails that will run on Eighth Avenue South pose a major threat to the safety of seniors and children in the area.
“There is a unique set of circumstances along Eighth Avenue that really makes it hard to have physical rail running down the middle of the street,” she said. “You’ve got the community center and an assisted living facility on one side of the street, but on the other side you have a library. Village Square was meant to be a synergistic development that just happens to have a road going between the two buildings.”
Seattle is developing the First Hill streetcar with Sound Transit, based on a 2008 transit expansion plan for the region. The streetcar is meant to link First Hill employment centers to the light rail system, using connections in Capitol Hill and the International District.
Concerns for pedestrian safety have risen since the city finalized the route to the Charles Street maintenance site using Eighth Avenue South. Legacy House Assisted Living Facility, International Community Health Services, the Denise Louie Educational Center, and the public library are all on this stretch of road.
Ethan Melone, rail transit manager with the Seattle Department of Transportation, said that the city chose the route based on available space and financial considerations, and the rails will not present a safety issue.
“We haven’t found any instances of the tracks posing a hazard for pedestrians,” he said.
Despite the city’s reasons for choosing this route, members of the community feel they were not consulted on this issue that will mainly affect their population.
“The city is saying they have very few options on how to connect the streetcar from Jackson to the maintenance facility,” said Winkler-Chin. “But at a certain point, that’s their problem, not mine. I have an issue with how these seniors are supposed to get across the street.”
Teresita Bayatola, chief executive officer of International Community Health Services, agreed with Winkler-Chin: “We would have liked the city to inform us before any decisions were made. Then, we would have liked to be involved in the decision. The way it unfolded is that the city was not even aware they were going to make an impact on our operations.”
One major concern is how easily cane tips and walker legs can fit between the rails, become caught, and cause a tipping hazard. Paula Tomlinson, director of senior services at Legacy House, referred to the rails at the South Lake Union streetcar site in Seattle.
“I went down to the car in South Lake Union, and cane tips can go into the middle of the rail,” she said. “When I took a walker across them, it tipped the walker. Most of our elderly are frail. The fact that there is going to be not one set of rails, but two sets going down the block, gives me lots to be concerned about regarding safety.”
However, Melone said that the South Lake Union streetcar is a prime example of how safe the projects are, pointing out that children, senior citizens and patients from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance use this car frequently.
“We already serve areas with people of varying mobility, and this hasn’t been an issue,” Melone said.
The other area of concern is allowing access to emergency vehicles that service Legacy House and International Community Health Services regularly.
“There are a lot of services, like fire trucks and ambulances, that come to both our clinic and Legacy House, at least two or three times a week,” said Batayola. “We were told by the city that the fire trucks and ambulances will have priority. Well, having priority and having ease to get to us are two different things.”
Melone added that while he believes pedestrian safety is not an issue, the city does recognize the large population of mobility-impaired elderly and young pedestrians crossing Eighth Avenue South daily, and is taking the concerns about these groups very seriously.
“We’ve had a number of meetings with both the SCIDpda, Legacy House and ICHS representatives, and we are going to continue those meetings,” he said. “We are looking at all the issues they’ve raised, and will continue to work with them so that we can address these concerns.”
Tomlinson said she worries that her community’s concerns will continue to be ignored: “I think the city is moving ahead without considering our opinion. It sounds to me like it’s a done deal no matter what we brought to the table.”