The S.L.U.T. is turning out to be one draining relationship.
That’s the name, bequeathed by the people, for what officials blandly call the South Lake Union Streetcar. For seven years now, electric trolleys have been ambling on a 1.3-mile track from downtown through the bustling Amazon jungle.
Yet despite its boomtown surroundings, the streetcar needs another bailout to keep going.
It will be the third rescue in seven years.
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“Ridership levels and sponsorship revenues on the South Lake Union Streetcar have been less than the forecast amounts, resulting in operating cash flow challenges,” reads the budget pleading from Mayor Ed Murray.
A lot of people don’t know this, but the whole project has been in the red from the beginning. It was supposed to cost $47 million to build but that ballooned to $56.4 million — forcing the city to take out a loan to cover part of the difference.
By opening day in 2007, the City Council also had been forced to loan the project money to pay for operations. Two years later, the city had to increase that loan to keep the line in service. It didn’t help that most everyone was riding the thing for free (the city took years to install ORCA transit-card readers).
Now, the operating loan is again about to be busted, warns a staff memo to the City Council.
“To continue to make payments on obligations, it will be necessary to increase the maximum amount of the loan,” the memo says — suggesting a bump up to $4.2 million.
The city may begin drawing on the city’s general fund — something the council pledged back in 2007 it would not do because it makes other city services help pay for an amenity to Paul Allen’s tony urban village.
“It’s all going as the critics predicted it would,” says the Seattle Displacement Coalition’s John Fox, a foe from the start. “This was always the main concern. Not that there shouldn’t be a streetcar, but that it’s more of a real-estate toy that shouldn’t be propped up by more vital services around the city.”
Last year the streetcar averaged 2,700 riders per weekday — which is not terrible. It ranks about 50th among Metro’s 200-plus bus routes. But the line is so short it’s more like the World’s Fair monorail than true mass transit (and even there, the 52-year-old monorail has three times more ridership).
We’re not talking big money for the streetcar. But given the sketchy track record, is it then wise to build a more than half-billion-dollar streetcar network all over town, as the city is planning to do?
“There’s a lot of civic enthusiasm for them because the streetcars are so damn cool,” says Nick Licata, the council’s budget chairman. “Businesses love them. But for the expense, the number of riders is minuscule. It doesn’t pencil out.”
Licata reminded me the city traded away bus service to get Metro to operate the streetcar — nearly $1 million worth of bus routes in other parts of the city. So it’s awkward that city taxpayers right now are being asked to both prop up the bus system and bail out the streetcar. Licata also noted the council voted down his plan to have property owners along the line pay for operating costs.
“So the red ink is on you and me,” he said.
Some better transit news just arrived that puts the streetcar misadventures in context. Sound Transit’s light-rail line finally is producing the kind of big-time ridership we were told about before it was built. In August, light rail had 39,210 average weekday riders, 21 percent more than last year and, impressively, closing in on the promised 45,000 by 2020.
Light rail was once way more down and out than the streetcar. But with a key difference — it had upside. Because it’s out of traffic, it can be fast, reliable and worth all the money and trouble. It’s starting to make good on that promise.
The moral of the story of the S.L.U.T.: Real cities build real mass transit.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org