The downtown streetcar is alive

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SLU streetcar line

This story was originally published by The Seattle Transit Blog on Jan. 18, 2019.

But it needs more funding

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced yesterday that the 1st Avenue streetcar will go ahead, if the city can secure $88m in new funding. In a release, the mayor offered her most enthusiastic endorsement of the Center City Connector to date:

“We have the opportunity to create a downtown with fewer cars and where residents, workers, and visitors can walk, bike, and take transit,” Durkan wrote. “A unified streetcar route provides a unique opportunity to build on our investments for the next generation.”

Over the course of 2018, the mayor held up the project so that outside evaluators could perform an analysis of the capital cost estimates, ridership and operating expense estimates, and engineering that SDOT had already performed on the project.

KPMG performed previous rounds of analysis. The latest report was prepared by Parsons and HDR, the engineering contractors SDOT has retained for the streetcar project. In-house SDOT engineers verified the findings. The new report adds $34m to the cost estimate from last year’s KPMG report, which itself added $54m to the budgeted amount in 2017.

According to the new report, initial planning for the streetcar was flawed. Plans called for the new streetcar to share maintenance facilities and some right of way with existing lines. Initial planning didn’t account for the larger size of the new vehicles.

Consistent with previous vague reports out of the Mayor’s office, the track gauge of the South Lake Union line is subtly different from that of First Hill and the CCC, although the streetcars can fit either. The 7mm deviation from the North American standard is a result of Portland’s experience that a narrower gauge in the turns results in less wear and less noise. SLU only uses the narrow gauge in turns, while elsewhere it is used on all track segments. This has no practical effect on project delivery.

Modifying the existing streetcar network to support longer and heavier cars would, according to the new analysis, require $11-17.4m (2022 dollars) in modifications.

While the $11-17m figure is new to this report, it not clear how the rest of the estimate reflects new scope, otherwise needed utility work, higher unit costs, and/or regular inflation due to delay.

Where the unbudgeted $88m will come from is an open question. The city has to find a new revenue source; there’s been discussion of raising the downtown parking tax to pay for the shortfall, according to sources.

Contrary to earlier speculation, the release says that federal funding for the streetcar is not in peril:

In December, the Federal Transit Administration released their updated program tables that showed the proposed C3 continues to be eligible for the $75 million Small Starts grant. Mayor Durkan continues to work with the region’s Congressional delegation to ensure Seattle receives the $75 million Federal Transit Administration grant to help build this project.

Pro-streetcar groups were excited by the announcement.

“We have two lines today that when connected will give people a frequent and dependable way to access the city’s most popular destinations and densest employment center. With current and projected growth, we need to get this line constructed and operating,” wrote Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) head Jon Scholes in a release. The DSA has been one of the streetcar’s principal boosters.

Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) head Alex Hudson also cautiously praised the announcement.

“I think that the big takeaway from the day is we have answered all the questions about what it’s going to take to move this project forward. We know that the mayor has reinforced her support for this project. There’s still a lot of next steps,” Hudson said.

Before joining TCC, Hudson had advocated for the streetcar as the leader of the First Hill Improvement Association. Community groups in streetcar-adjacent neighborhoods, including Chinatown/International District (CID) and Pioneer Square, have also pushed for the downtown streetcar.

“The principle of making good on our commitments to our communities is really important,” Hudson says.

In the CID’s case, neighborhood leaders were sold on the Jackson Street segment of the existing streetcar network with promises of a future downtown segment.

“When they were talking about [streetcar projects] in this neighborhood, they were like, ‘Oh, you’ll be part of this great streetcar system, and it’ll be great for residents and economic development,’” says Maiko Winkler-Chin, head of the CID Business Improvement Authority.

Winkler-Chin says that expanding the streetcar network will help make up for the negative impacts of building the First Hill line:

“We suffered through construction [of the First Hill streetcar] and that was not easy. …It’s good that we’re actually moving forward on something.”