The rails are set on Broadway. The electric wires have been strung overhead. A green bike lane was finished last year, followed by the concrete boarding platforms.
The only things missing from the First Hill Streetcar route are the streetcars.
Passenger service on the $134 million project has been delayed until “as early as the first quarter of 2015,” says a memo this week to the Seattle City Council.
Train-builder Inekon, based in the Czech Republic, underestimated how long it would take to design and build the seven trains, said Ethan Melone, streetcar program manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation.
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So the Capitol Hill community may have to wait nearly a year and a half beyond the city’s original goal of late 2013, which was pushed to early 2014 by the time construction began there two years ago.
That magnitude of delay is comparable to the stall of Highway 99 tunnel machine Bertha, or the time losses from cracks in the first batch of Highway 520 bridge pontoons.
On the other hand, Melone says, the Czech streetcars have performed with virtually no breakdowns for seven years on the city’s existing South Lake Union line. “We still believe they are going to be really good vehicles,” he said Tuesday.
Inekon won the contract to build six First Hill trains, plus a seventh that Amazon agreed to add to the SLU line, as compensation for taking a city alleyway in the new Rufus 2.0 campus south of Denny Way. Trains cost about $3.7 million each.
Some trains should be completed in October, but Malone said all seven were supposed to be ready by Oct. 6 — a deadline that won’t be met. Inekon will pay penalties to the city of $25,000 the first day plus $1,000 for each additional day of delay, he said.
Several factors contributed to the delay, he said:
• Inekon encountered a backlog of orders.
• Floor coverings failed a fire-resistance test.
• Internal wiring and wireless networks for the train controls and propulsion are completely changed from past years, and passed final tests only last week.
• Three trains are undergoing final assembly at Pacifica Marine in Seattle, but the two already here couldn’t be finished until trains in the Czech factory passed testing.
• Brakes exist for most of the trains, but Inekon may face delays on equipping the whole fleet this fall, due to supply-chain issues in Europe.
The First Hill line begins on Broadway at the future Capitol Hill light-rail station. It passes Seattle Central College, hospitals and Seattle University, then bends past Yesler Terrace before turning toward Chinatown and Pioneer Square.
City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the Transportation Committee, said information has been oblique from SDOT this year. “I think they need to be providing us with more information on these issues,” he said.
Melone replied that he’s glad to provide better, real-time updates to the council.
The new streetcars will have similar shapes and capacity as existing Seattle streetcars.
American-made streetcars are available from Siemens in Sacramento, but Inekon won the Seattle bid competition, Melone said. He also said the most common Siemens trains are a foot wider than the 8-foot-wide Inekon trains, a disadvantage on tight Seattle streets.
The First Hill line was approved by Sound Transit voters as one piece of a 2008 regional ballot measure, to raise sales taxes and extend rail. Construction and most operating costs through 2023 are borne by Sound Transit.
In July the City Council approved the route for a First Avenue streetcar line, to connect the South Lake Union and First Hill lines, but funding has not yet been secured.
Seattle’s streetcar program has its detractors, who argue chiefly that the operating costs drain money that could be spent for basic transit service — and in particular, that streetcars on Broadway will duplicate or even obstruct electric buses.
Michael Wells, executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, said he wasn’t aware Tuesday that the First Hill timeline had slipped into 2015, but he knew it was a possibility. Broadway is a complicated place these days, he said, with light-rail-station work, new street signs and signals everywhere, and rapid housing construction.
“You have to be a little patient, because that’s how a city grows,” he said.
Wells touted a proposed additional half-mile of track, to serve the whole retail core of Broadway.
“Eventually, we’ll get that extension up to Roy Street. Actually, I’m focused on making that happen,” he said.