The Seattle City Council approved yesterday Mayor Greg Nickels' plan for a South Lake Union streetcar, even though it would shift some future...

Share story

The Seattle City Council approved yesterday Mayor Greg Nickels’ plan for a South Lake Union streetcar, even though it would shift some future city bus service — including some meant to serve monorail and light rail — into funding for streetcar operations.

Councilman Nick Licata tried to amend the mayor’s proposal so that private-property owners in South Lake Union might pay for streetcar operations in the future, which could allow more bus service for other parts of the city. But Licata’s proposal was rejected 6-3. Councilwoman Jean Godden called it a “roadblock” to building a South Lake Union streetcar, and her colleagues agreed.

Nickels hailed the council’s action. “The South Lake Union streetcar is public transit that makes sense. It will link thousands of workers and residents to buses, light rail and monorail stations downtown,” Nickels said in a written statement.

The mayor’s plan relies on the premise that when new light-rail and monorail lines start running, the county’s transit agency will have 58,000 hours of yearly bus service that duplicates the proposed light-rail and monorail lines. That redundant bus service, as estimated by Metro, then would be freed up to go to other parts of the city to feed riders to the rail systems.

The council approved tapping 9,300 hours of bus service in the city, with an estimated cost of $911,000 per year, so King County Metro Transit, which provides bus service throughout the county, could operate the South Lake Union streetcar.

The bus service that would be converted to streetcar operations amounts to about 16 percent of the future service that would be freed up by the new rail lines.

If the financially troubled monorail project isn’t built, however, the South Lake Union streetcar could eat up about 30 percent of all the freed-up bus hours the city expects to get from Metro starting in 2009.

Councilman David Della called the South Lake Union proposal a “great idea that needs to spread,” and Councilman Jim Compton said it was a “model of how we can work together.”

Under the mayor’s plan, a 1.3-mile streetcar line would start running in 2007 from downtown’s Westlake Center to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on the southeast shore of Lake Union. Building the line is projected to cost $47.5 million, and private-property owners near the line have pledged to pay $25 million of the construction cost.

The city would get the rest of the construction budget from grants, rights it would sell to develop space above the streetcar maintenance barn, and proceeds from the 2001 sale of city property to Paul Allen.

Allen’s development company has amassed about 60 acres in the South Lake Union area and wants to redevelop the area as a biotech hub with thousands of new condos and apartments.

The streetcar would cost about $1.5 million a year to operate. At first, the city would rely on sponsorships to pay for most of the operations.

In the streetcar’s third year, Metro would pay 75 percent of the streetcar’s operations by converting some bus service for Seattle into running the streetcar.

Licata argued that redirecting future bus service that would serve people around the city for a 1.3-mile streetcar line was “disproportionate” and “crazy.” A council study showed that property owners near the streetcar would see the value of their holdings increase by at least $70 million. Asking them to pay more than $25 million was reasonable, he said.

But Jim Falconer, chairman of a pro-streetcar group, said that the property owners’ $25 million pledge was generous and that Licata’s proposal was the “tree trunk that would break the camel’s back.”

Councilmen Peter Steinbrueck and Tom Rasmussen supported Licata’s proposal. Steinbrueck said he was concerned that the streetcar would cost more than projected, which would put revenues for basic city services at risk.

Steinbrueck called the streetcar a “luxury” in the South Lake Union area, which needs sidewalks, streetlights, and repaved streets.

“The costs and risks of this are just too much,” Steinbrueck said. “It’s very intoxicating, but I haven’t drunk any so far.”

The council approved the mayor’s plan on a 7-2 vote, with Licata and Steinbrueck opposed.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or