Proposition 1, a $204 million plan to boost transit, street and bicycle-pedestrian funding in Seattle, might also decide whether the city makes a huge future investment in streetcars.

Share story

If voters approve a $204 million plan to boost transit, street and bicycle-pedestrian funding in Seattle, they might also be creating momentum to make a huge future investment in streetcars.

One polarizing piece of Proposition 1 is its $18 million allotment for streetcar planning, outreach, engineering and possibly some construction.

The city already has a South Lake Union streetcar, and a 2013 line is planned on First Hill, paid for by Sound Transit and built by the city. The City Council wants to link those lines through downtown, with First Avenue the leading candidate.

Money also would go toward engineering a First Hill extension to reach the north end of Broadway.

Voters will decide whether to accept a 10-year, $60 annual increase in car-tab fees, right after a $20 fee was added by the city this spring and a $20 fee in 2012-13 for King County Metro Transit.

Ballots will be sent to voters Oct. 19 and must be postmarked by Nov. 8.

Proponents hope and opponents fear that the millions of dollars the proposition allocates for planning studies will create irresistible political momentum to follow in the tracks of Portland and build a network.

Back in 2009, then-Mayor Greg Nickels endorsed $130 million for a First Avenue streetcar, as part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s $4.2 billion plan to build and supplement the Highway 99 tunnel. But current Mayor Mike McGinn opposed a First Avenue streetcar then. McGinn said bus service and Ballard-West Seattle rail were higher priorities.

But the allure of streetcars lives.

The 2007 South Lake Union line, which ran mostly empty at first, is now routinely filled with 45 to 70 passengers per peak trip, and carried 2,681 people per weekday in September, benefiting from the new campus alongside it.

Making connections

A downtown link would make it easy for visitors at cancer-care clinics at South Lake Union, or workers at Amazon to reach Pike Place Market, the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square, said James Kelly, co-founder of the Streetcar Alliance. People downtown could continue to medical centers on First Hill. “Being able to accommodate elderly people, those who want to go to hospitals, it’s a wonderful connection,” he said.

City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who lives downtown, said a streetcar on First Avenue would let visitors skip the less pleasant parts of Second and Third avenues, and an unfamiliar bus system.

“For reasons that aren’t totally rational, people will get on trains in some cases where they won’t get on a bus. That’s reality,” she said.

Kelly said the larger issue is that Second and Third are fast corridors for commuters to leave downtown, while First Avenue allows a calmer pace for visitors.

Opponents say the city has more serious, immediate needs.

“It shouldn’t be in there,” said David Miller, leader of the opposition campaign Sidewalks and Streets for Seattle, of streetcars’ inclusion in Prop. 1.

“We have people being left on the corner as a full bus goes by, we have deteriorating bridges, deteriorating roads. For this to reserve $18 million to study streetcars, it will never build a mile of streetcar — to spend $18 million out of a very regressive tax, this is not what this measure should be doing.”

The current scenario calls for just nine blocks a year of new sidewalks, and no added bus hours. (However, about $66 million would go into bus lanes, power wires and new stops to improve major Metro corridors.) The City Council has power to change the budgets based on annual reviews.

Funding gap

It’s possible that money from Proposition 1 could help the council fulfill an over-exuberant pledge, made last year, to run Sound Transit’s First Hill Streetcar an extra four blocks west into Pioneer Square.

Ethan Melone, city streetcar-program director, revealed this summer that Sound Transit’s $133 million for that line could be used up on the main route between the International District/Chinatown and future Capitol Hill light-rail stations. So the city would be unable to go into Pioneer Square and still guarantee the 10-minute train frequency Sound Transit requires for commuters. Solving that problem would require another train, at roughly $4 million.

Theoretically, if $10 million from Prop. 1’s $18 million for streetcar studies went to engineer First Avenue, and $1 million for north Broadway, the council could buy another train. Asked about this scenario, Melone said it would make for an interesting discussion with the council, if the measure passes.

“If it doesn’t get that far, we’ve truly broken faith with Pioneer Square,” Bagshaw said.

Right now, leftover cash is supposed to be seed money to attract outside grants for construction.

Seattle doesn’t know yet where to locate additional tens of millions to build the downtown link, much less fulfill its whole wish list of five lines. Kelly pointed to the Federal Transit Administration’s “Small Starts” grant program for construction, and a fee on local property owners to cover operating subsidies.

Rick Krochalis, regional FTA administrator, said he’s been approached for help on city transit proposals — but there is national competition. “We don’t know what kind of money we can get from Congress,” he added.

McGinn said Friday that he recalls not ruling out a First Avenue line in 2009, but he just couldn’t support it then until he saw more data. Based on a new transit master plan, to be completed this year, a Ballard-Fremont line and a downtown connector seem like the best two rail corridors, he said. However, McGinn said he wants to explore whether a streetcar would be better on Fourth or Fifth avenues, a more commuter-oriented area, rather than First.

He believes Proposition 1-funded studies would help prepare a streetcar for a public vote and federal dollars. But planning dollars don’t lock in a project, he said, pointing to the $124 million spent on a monorail project canceled in 2005.

Bagshaw thinks it would be silly for Seattle to build two separate north-south lines, then stop.

“If you’re going to build it, let’s connect it,” she said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or