Seattle City Hall has made a few pragmatic decisions about transportation lately despite furious, emotional lobbying by special interests.
That newly critical eye should reconsider the pitiful streetcar crawling, often nearly empty, around downtown. Mayor Jenny Durkan may spend nearly $300 million extending this sad boondoggle, and committing to perpetually spend $18 million a year on its operation.
There’s a simple, efficient and proven alternative.
Instead, Seattle and King County Metro should resurrect the ride-free zone that operated in downtown Seattle for nearly 40 years. Cost-cutting and grumbling by suburban officials and the bus drivers’ union led to its demise in 2012.
The ride-free zone allowed free trips throughout the downtown core. It carried an estimated 29,000 riders per day, more than an expanded streetcar will for many years. Operating the ride-free zone cost around $2 million worth of fares.
Durkan is proposing to spend $286 million, including utility work, to extend the streetcar along First Avenue. That’s not counting the value of real estate the project will take, including half a downtown arterial. Operations will cost $18 million a year to start.
The city estimates that extending the system, to connect South Lake Union and Capitol Hill segments, will attract nearly 22,000 weekday riders, rising to nearly 30,000 in 2035. Beware of forecasts, though: Seattle repeatedly whiffed estimates, wildly overestimating streetcar demand and underestimating costs.
So for nearly $300 million plus $18 million a year, the streetcar might carry as many people as a ride-free zone that cost $2 million a year with existing equipment.
Costs have risen since 2012, so let’s say the ride-free service now costs $4 million. We could cover that for 71 years with $286 million. Or for every year of streetcar operation, we could have more than four years of ride-free service.
A ride-free zone is better at helping people get around and encouraging transit use. It allows people to ride dozens of bus routes crisscrossing downtown.
Streetcars follow a fixed path, slowly — 8.1 miles per hour, according to Seattle’s optimistic impact study. They also overlap existing bus routes.
That study also said the streetcar extension will cause delays for bus riders and drivers downtown, who far outnumber streetcar riders.
Vehicle throughput on First Avenue would decrease up to 53 percent, as it removes two of four lanes. It’s a recipe for hell: The study also expects First Avenue traffic will increase as drivers avoid Alaskan Way. Crosstown traffic would also be delayed, especially buses on Stewart Street between Second and Third avenues. Delays of 40 seconds per bus seem slight but add up, the study says, to 400 hours per day of passenger delay.
Why would the city consider building this slug in the first place, much less expand it despite dismal ridership and soaring costs? Because rich and powerful people want it, hoping it will make them even more money.
Notably, the late Paul Allen pushed for streetcars to his big real estate investments in South Lake Union and Yesler Terrace.
“It was really an economic development tool,” Allen’s real estate investment strategy director, Lori Mason Curran, told CityLab in 2014. In South Lake Union, it “was really to encourage development and to make this neighborhood a place.”
Cities across the country have used this playbook to provide streetcars that are commercial real estate amenities more than transit solutions. Streetcars help sell office and apartment buildings, but the public pays directly and indirectly, when streetcars reduce street capacity, increase congestion and consume resources that could fund infrastructure with more widespread benefits.
Shortly after deciding to proceed with streetcar expansion, City Hall told voters that unless they raise property taxes, it can’t afford $213 million worth of maintenance and upgrades at libraries, which have 500,000 users.
Now South Lake Union is nearly built out, yet at rush hour, some streetcars glide through nearly empty. Buses to suburbs and outlying neighborhoods are standing room only and congestion is fierce, especially where a street lane was taken for streetcars.
Meanwhile in downtown, Seattle and Metro are trying to speed fare collection and bus boarding, to increase throughput. This was a great advantage of the ride-free zone: It expedited this process, without requiring curbside concierges and new equipment.
Restoring the ride-free zone entails adjustments, to collect fares when disembarking rather than boarding. Now is a good time to make such a change as Metro is preparing to replace fare boxes as part of efforts to encourage more Orca pass usage.
Although suburbs have groused about the fairness of free rides downtown, suburbanites benefit if the regional hub works better. Equity concerns are also resolved if Seattle funds the ride-free cost.
A ride-free zone from Mercer Street to Jackson Street and Boren Avenue to the waterfront would be an investment in economic vitality and tourism. It would encourage more shopping and dining across downtown and increase access to Pike Place Market and the waterfront. It would also provide more, better and cheaper connections between Chinatown International District, Pioneer Square and job clusters to the north.
When the ride-free zone was killed, some protested it was a hardship for the poor. So the county has since paid more than $1 million a year for special shuttles circling downtown, taking social-service recipients to service centers. For not much more, it could make all downtown bus rides free.
Seattle believes it has $286 million plus $18 million a year to spend on a slow, congestion-inducing streetcar extension. So the city should have no problem instead spending $2 million to $4 million a year for a ride-free zone providing a faster, more flexible and truly equitable way to get around the city.