Seattle Transportation: From Trolleys to Monorails, A Timeline

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 10/31/2002
  • Essay 4005

This condensed chronology traces major milestones in the evolution of public transportation in greater Seattle and was originally published in The Seattle Times on October 20, 2002. Detailed essays on virtually all of these events and subjects can be found on HistoryLink.

Hayburners to Interurbans

1884: Frank Osgood builds Seattle's first horse-drawn street railway on 2nd Avenue.

1886: Seattle's first electric generator is demonstrated.

1887: Lake Washington Cable Railway links Leschi and Pioneer Square.

1889: Osgood introduces city's first electric streetcars; work begins on interurban railroad between Seattle and Georgetown.

1893: Economic depression bankrupts many streetcar lines serving outer neighborhoods such as Rainier Valley and Ravenna.

1900: Stone & Webster utility cartel (ancestor of Puget Sound Energy) buys up Seattle streetcar lines and wins 35-year city franchise; King County's first automobile arrives.

1902: Seattle voters approve future municipal electric plant on the Cedar River; Stone & Webster opens electric interurban rail service between Tacoma and Seattle.

1910: Seattle City Light is organized to provide public power; Stone & Webster completes interurban line between Seattle and Everett. Private developers also float stock for an interurban monorail.

Derailing Seattle

1914: Voters approve purchase of Rainier Valley interurban line but its owners balk and funds are spent to build streetcar line to Ballard.

1918: Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson agrees to buy Stone & Webster's Seattle streetcar lines at an inflated price.

1920: Fearing a monopoly “Concrete Trust,” voters soundly reject first proposed state bond issue for highway construction for $30 million. (The state would not use bonds for road construction until the Great Depression.)

1922: State Supreme Court bans use of non-fare revenue to pay off Seattle's streetcar debt, dooming the system to eventual bankruptcy.

1928: Highway 99 completed between Tacoma and Seattle, ending interurban service.

1932: State builds Aurora Bridge without streetcar tracks.

1939: Seattle-Everett interurban service ends. Seattle voters to retain streetcars but national automakers block needed financing.

1940: Federal government loans Seattle $10 million to retire streetcar debt and fund new bus and trackless trolley system. First Lake Washington Floating Bridge opens.

1941: Last Seattle streetcar completes its run and tracks are torn up and sold for scrap.

1951: Washington State takes over private Blackball ferry system. Last Kirkland-Seattle ferry ends service.

1952: King County voters reject proposed "home rule" charter, which includes regional transit authority; region’s first shopping center opens at Northgate.

1953: Bellevue incorporates as a city of 10,000.

1953: First section of Alaskan Way viaduct opens.

1956: Federal government establishes interstate highway program.

The Birth and Death of Metro Transit

1958: Suburban voters reject first "Metro" plan that includes transit service, but approve second plan limited to waste treatment.

1962: Seattle's Monorail opens for World's Fair; most of Interstate-5 completed through Seattle; voters reject Metro request for transit planning authority.

1963: Evergreen Point Floating Bridge opens a year late.

1965: Metro leader James Ellis calls for "Forward Thrust" to manage growth through regional improvements and transit. Interstate-5 completed between Everett and Tacoma.

1967: First Puget Sound Regional Transportation Plan rules out rail transit in favor new highways and roads.

1968: King County voters approve 7 of 12 Forward Thrust bond issues, but reject 47-mile rail transit plan costing $1.15 billion ($385 million local).

1970: Second Forward Thrust rail plan fails amid Boeing Bust, and reserved federal funds are allocated to Atlanta; for the first time, the census counts more King County residents living outside Seattle than within.

1971: Expansion of I-90 halted due to inadequate environmental impact statement.

1972: King County voters approve Metro Transit plan limited to bus service; Seattle voters scrap R. H. Thomson Expressway and reject Bay Freeway.

1973: Metro Transit introduces "ride-free" zone in downtown Seattle.

1981: Puget Sound Council of Governments (now Regional Council) renews rail transit planning.

1982: George Benson’s Waterfront Streetcar enters service (it is extended in 1990; City Councilman Benson also saved the Monorail during the Westlake Center development and championed installation of rails in the downtown bus tunnel).

1983: Metro approves construction of downtown transit tunnel for new "dual-mode" electric-diesel buses.

1985: King County passes first true growth management plan to combat sprawl.

1990: State Legislature approves expanded growth management powers and planning for Puget Sound rapid transit system; downtown transit tunnel opens; Federal Judge William Dwyer rules Metro Council unconstitutional; original Lake Washington floating bridge sinks during repairs.

1992: Voters approve King County's absorption of Metro services effective 1994; State completes last mile of Interstate-90 at cost of $1.2 billion.

Light Rail Rules

1993: King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties form Regional Transit Authority (RTA, future Sound Transit).

1995: First RTA plan, costing $6.7 billion, fails to win needed three-county majority for new taxes.

1996: Revised "Sound Transit" plan, costing $3.9 billion, passes.

1997: Seattle voters approve Initiative 43 to establish Elevated Transportation Co. (ETC) to study and build a citywide monorail system.

1999: State Initiative 695 slashes automobile excise tax revenue for transportation, but does not affect special Sound Transit taxes.

2000: Seattle voters approve Initiative 52 to fund additional Monorail plan for resubmission to voters. Top Sound Transit executives resign amid revelations of massive cost overruns.

2002: Voters reject Referendum 51 plan to raise gas taxes for $8 billion in state transportation improvements while approving Tim Eyman's Initiative 776, which cuts motor vehicle taxes. Seattle voters narrowly approve a new Seattle Popular Monorail Authority to build a 14-mile system.

2004: Opponents of the planned third runway at Sea-Tac Airport abandon further legal challenges. City of Seattle and Washington State Department of Transportation select tunnel design as preferred alternative to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

2005: Legislature approves $8.5 billion in transportation taxes and voters reject initiative to repeal the taxes. Sound Transit installs the first rails for the Central Link light-rail line from south of downtown Seattle to the airport. Following cost overruns and revenue shortfalls, city voters kill the Seattle Monorail project they supported in four earlier votes.

2006: Governor Chris Gregoire calls for Seattle voters to decide between a $2.8 billion new elevated structure and a $4.6 billion tunnel as the replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.


Walt Crowley, Routes: An Interpretive History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle(Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993); Walt Crowley, Kit Oldham and the Staff, Moving Washington Timeline: The First Century of the Washington State Department of Transportation, 1905-2005 (Seattle: Washington State Department of Transportation and History Ink/, 2005).
Note: This chronology was updated on January 5, 2007.

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