Former Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata breaks down the projections and reality for the city's proposed Central City Connector, the line that would connect the city's streetcar lines.
As the former chair of the Seattle City Council’s budget committee, I know the toughest decision is to cut funding from a popular project that doesn’t achieve a good cost-benefit measurement. The city did that with social-service providers who do not reach acceptable measurements. We need to apply that same test to our streetcar network.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has wisely taken a hard look at whether to pursue the downtown 1.2-mile streetcar, the Central City Connector (CCC), to run along First Avenue and Stewart Street. Advocates make two prominent assumptions, with each having fault lines that could derail it.
The first assumes that the CCC’s sunken costs will be recaptured. The 10-year debt still carried by the city for the South Lake Union streetcar shows that the city’s similar past assumption has not been realized. As of this past July, the city still needs to pay off $4.8 million on the South Lake Union (SLU) streetcar capital fund, and an additional $3.6 million is still due on its operating loan. This combined debt started off as $8.2 million in 2007, and 10 years later we still owe $8.4 million. Most likely, it will come out of our general fund, impacting other transit capital projects or services.
A June 2017 City Council report examined the CCC project’s underlying financial assumptions. It concluded that there is financial risk in its financial plan — one that already exists with operating the SLU and the First Hill Streetcar lines: “SLU Streetcar annual ridership peaked in 2013 at 760,933 riders, but declined to 518,248 riders in 2016 due to reduced reliability (i.e., congestion) and increased transit options.”
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Overall the combined fare revenue as a percentage of operating expenses for our current streetcar lines is significantly lower than King County Metro.
According to Councilmember Lisa Herbold, even if total streetcar ridership triples, we’ll be lucky to be only $3 million in the hole for operations costs in 2021. That deficit could go up to $8 million in 2024. That’s in addition to the $3.5 million per year needed to cover the new bonds issued for the CCC.
The second assumption is that there is a real need for the CCC to strengthen our transportation network. The greatest challenge for our systemwide public transit is to bring workers and shoppers into downtown without them encountering unbearable traffic congestion.
The CCC does not meet that challenge. Advocates point to the increased central-business district residential population as a growing need for the CCC. While about 154,000 jobs and 54,000 residents are within a quarter mile of the line (according to Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton), it’s not likely that more than two-thirds of those residents are working within that corridor. That would leave 118,000 workers in that corridor who live beyond the service provided by the CCC. They need to get to downtown, and we want to encourage them to be on public transit, which the CCC does not provide.
The Seattle Department of Transportation anticipates that ridership will grow in future years. Is that an aspiration or a real projection?
Andrew Glass Hastings, SDOT’s director of transit and mobility, said, “There’s a huge amount of ridership in South Lake Union that wants to take the streetcar beyond where it ends today.” That sounds reasonable, but bus routes 40, 52, 70 and Link Rail already provide transit options for connecting with the SLU streetcar. Is it cost-effective to spend an additional $157 million to offer a fifth connection that will compete with existing lines and contribute to more surface congestion? Even more congestion will be generated two years from now when the Washington State Convention Center is expanded and all the buses currently using the Third Avenue Tunnel will be moved to downtown surface streets.
Clearly if the CCC is built, there will be more transit riders on the three streetcar lines. However, SDOT has not projected how many will be new transit riders or riders moving from bus lines to the CCC. Those switching transit modes will only divert revenue from the larger bus network serving to bring employees and shoppers to our downtown while reducing the traffic congestion that is choking access to it.