The Seattle City Council was on the verge of picking First Avenue for a downtown streetcar route Monday — then decided to revisit some basic questions.
What about alternative modes of travel?
Could rubber-tired trolley buses connect downtown destinations equally well?
Can up to $75 million in potential Federal Transit Administration (FTA) aid be used for other needs?
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And even if the FTA blesses Seattle with that entire sum, where does the city find an additional $35 million or so to cover the entire estimated $110 million price?
The council postponed the First Avenue decision until July 21, to research issues raised by Councilmembers Nick Licata and Tom Rasmussen, the transportation-committee chair. The Seattle Department of Transportation wasn’t going to formally apply for federal funds until early 2016, so there’s no harm taking a bit more time, Rasmussen said.
Meanwhile, elected officials are talking about sales tax, parking tax, car-tab fees and employer payroll taxes just to preserve Metro bus service that exists now.
There’s no tax source to build streetcars. Rasmussen said a local improvement district funded by downtown landowners is possible, but a challenge, since the same owners would be asked to pay for waterfront parks after the Alaskan Way Viaduct is razed in a few years.
First Avenue is the best location, the city says, because then streetcars wouldn’t interfere with Metro and Community Transit buses on Fourth Avenue, an option that’s been dropped.
And on the waterfront, current plans for bike trails, promenade parks and bus lanes preclude a streetcar on post-viaduct Alaskan Way, presuming the Highway 99 tunnel gets done.
Equally significant, the city expects to give First Avenue streetcars their own lanes for quicker travel — unlike the existing South Lake Union line, and the First Hill line, to open later this year.
“It’s really frustrating to go to South Lake Union and see the streetcar stuck behind other cars,” Rasmussen said in an interview. “As a practical matter, why would we spend tens of millions of dollars on streetcars, or other transit modes, to have them stuck behind other traffic?”
Streetcar-only lanes would require eliminating about 140 curbside parking spaces on First Avenue, many of which are already no-parking zones in commute hours.
Route studies, led by consulting firm Nelson Nygaard, are funded by a $900,000 federal grant and $300,000 in city money. In addition, $6.5 million would be spent on environmental and engineering work through 2015 if the council keeps going.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom