After the South Lake Union streetcar opened two years ago, the city of Seattle spent an additional $4.3 million on the project — spending that it didn't announce but says it needed, mainly for utility work.

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After the South Lake Union streetcar opened two years ago, the city of Seattle spent $4.3 million more on the project — spending it didn’t announce but says it needed, mainly for utility work.

The project ended up costing the city $56.4 million. Most of the additional money went toward power lines, streetlights, wiring splices or drainage systems near the tracks. These were “opportunities to make repairs and upgrades” beyond what the city predicted when the project began, explains Ethan Melone, streetcar project director for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

Shiny red, orange and purple trains ply the 1.3-mile route between Westlake Center and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, carrying just more than 1,300 riders a day. Trains are typically less than half full, but the city expects big ridership growth as new employers arrive in the next decade.

When construction of the streetcar line began in July 2006, the city’s estimate was $50.5 million for construction and trains, including $2.4 million in SDOT money toward utilities. The total rose to $52.1 million by opening day, Dec. 12, 2007, the city acknowledged at the time.

But in the next few weeks, an additional $1.2 million was spent by SDOT and $3.1 million by Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), internal spreadsheets and city-budget line items show.

Numbers like these amount to kibble in a wealthy city that builds some of the world’s most precious highway and rail megaprojects.

Still, the streetcar cost increase is sure to provoke some thought:

• Sound Transit recently agreed to supply $132 million in voter-approved funds, mainly sales-tax revenue, to build and operate a new streetcar line, managed by the city and serving Seattle University, Seattle Central Community College, hospitals and other points between Link light rail’s International District/Chinatown Station and the future Capitol Hill light-rail station. Will overruns happen on SDOT’s watch?

Melone says utilities along Capitol Hill are newer than those in South Lake Union, so costs for that project should be easier to predict.

• Senior staffers didn’t publicly brief the City Council as the last $4.3 million was spent, though a September 2009 presentation did show SDOT’s final $53.3 million cost figure. Should SDOT be more transparent?

Because the extra $3.1 million in work was funded by the utilities and not DOT, says Melone, the transportation and utility managers had authority to go ahead, without a City Council vote or contract change.

• Politically, the streetcar has been a lightning rod for critics who accuse Mayor Greg Nickels of pandering to Paul Allen’s Vulcan, a dominant landowner that is remodeling South Lake Union to a gleaming village of offices, labs and lofts.

Melone said ratepayers citywide will save money, because SPU won’t have to dig into the streets later to fix failed wires or pipes.

New buildings are being constructed for an estimated 900 Amazon employees to arrive from 2010 to 2012. “If the first day Amazon.com moved in, they discovered there were leaks and things in the sewer system, that would not be a good outcome,” Melone said.

Such add-ons, known as betterments, are fairly common. The records also show, however, there were “change orders resulting from differing site conditions” — in other words, surprises.

“South Lake Union is an old part of town that hadn’t been opened up in 80 years,” says SDOT Director Grace Crunican. “When we opened it up, wiring fell apart and things were not there.”

On budget?

During the mayoral primary race, Nickels said at a news conference: “Our transportation director over the last five years has built a streetcar line from nothing, from simply an idea, and delivered it on time and on budget.”

Crunican did make her fall 2007 goal with 10 days to spare, but an “on budget” conclusion is debatable.

“I don’t get into that political talk,” she said this week. Records also show that in the final weeks, DOT shifted $375,000 from a few of its other projects to backfill the rising streetcar budget. Money came out of Alaskan Way Viaduct closure signs, traffic signals, high-collision intersection studies and bike safety.

Melone said it’s routine to move leftover money around. On the other hand, Nickels’ bicycle master plan contains a multiyear backlog of unfunded trails and bridges.

City Councilmember Nick Licata, a longtime critic of the streetcar, said he doesn’t recall any briefings about the post-opening increases.

“Going over budget … does impact ratepayers and the general fund. It’s not transparency, in paying for projects that have questionable systemwide value.”

Meanwhile, the streetcar is $3.65 million in debt, even though Vulcan and other landowners are paying $25 million in local property fees toward the work. Ridership is above projections, but cost overruns, higher operating expenses and an over-optimistic projection of ad revenue have tainted the budget.

Mike McGinn will replace Nickels as mayor next month and will grasp the reins of the future First Hill/Capitol Hill streetcar.

“McGinn has run as a populist,” says Licata. “Populism translates into more transparency in government. That’s my expectation.”

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com