Seattle transportation officials recently offered a simple explanation for why they have little choice about spending up to $17 million to make room for the longer, heavier trolleys they ordered for the planned First Avenue streetcar line.
“Exact match to existing Seattle Streetcar vehicles no longer available,” the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) wrote in a presentation to the Seattle City Council.
One major streetcar manufacturer begs to differ.
Czech streetcar builder Skoda is “able and more than willing” to sell the city vehicles that would be “fully compliant with Seattle streetcar lines, platforms on passenger stops, maintenance facilities and other equipment needed for vehicle operation and their maintenance,” a Skoda executive wrote in a letter to SDOT last summer.
A company representative says they never heard back from the city.
Whether Skoda could live up to its claims remains unclear and boils down to technical manufacturing and funding details. Never mind that the company’s letter came after Seattle had already selected a competitor through a standard bidding process, during which Skoda didn’t bid.
But the late-hour offer underscores a lingering unresolved issue for the First Avenue streetcar: Will the city stick with its current contract for the larger vehicles, and are officials sure how much that will cost?
“The cars are the crux of it,” said Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, chair of the council’s transportation committee.
Costs expected to increase
In 2017, Seattle broke ground on work associated with the First Avenue streetcar, a long-promised effort to connect existing lines in South Lake Union and First Hill. But the following spring, Mayor Jenny Durkan put the project on hold.
Durkan, who took office after the new line had first been approved, worried about rising costs and revealed that the city had ordered streetcars that would be too big for parts of the existing system. This year, Durkan said she wants to go ahead and build the line, which will cost millions more than once expected and open years later.
To restart the project, SDOT is now refining its plans and cost estimates.
As part of the pause, the city placed a stop-work order on its contract for buying the larger cars. That order expires in September, meaning SDOT will soon determine whether to stay in the contract, leave it or further delay a decision.
Starting over would bring new costs for bidding and negotiation. Staying the course would have new costs, too.
“We anticipate that costs would likely increase due to the extensive delay in the design and delivery schedule,” SDOT spokesman Ethan Bergerson said in an email. The department was “not prepared” to estimate how much the price of the cars could rise. The company set to provide the cars, CAF USA, did not respond to questions about its contract with Seattle.
Beyond the contract itself, there’s the work necessary to make room for the bigger cars.
Longer, heavier cars would require changes to five station platforms and extensions to the ends of the tracks to make room for temporary storage and towing in the event of a broken down streetcar, an analysis released in January found. Alterations would be needed at maintenance facilities, and at the edge of Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District, bridge structures on South Jackson Street would need to be strengthened or replaced.
That review estimated the work would cost between $11 million and $17.4 million, accounting for cost escalations to the year 2022. The streetcar is now expected to open in 2026.
The City Council recently approved $9 million for SDOT to refine engineering and cost estimates associated with the bigger cars.
“Actually building the route and the stations — I believe there will probably be some refinements but I think we generally know what those costs will be,” O’Brien said. “The question marks … all revolve around the choice of the vehicle.”
In total, the streetcar is now expected to cost about $208 million. The city says necessary utility work along the line will cost another $78 million. The streetcar faces a $65 million funding shortfall and the utilities need another $23 million.
The city’s latest numbers include modifications for the new cars and inflation costs for the cars themselves, but SDOT says ongoing negotiations with CAF could add more costs.
In February, Councilmember Lisa Herbold, a longtime skeptic of the project, wondered whether Seattle could recoup spending for the modifications from CAF USA.
Karen Melanson, SDOT’s deputy director for policy and programs, told Herbold, “It’s something that we’ll work with them to negotiate as we move forward with the project.”
Switching streetcar builders?
SDOT emphasizes that the provider of its current cars, the Czech company Inekon, is now essentially out of business, but that doesn’t explain why a larger car was chosen in the first place.
A more telling sign may be what had happened shortly before a new company was selected.
Inekon was still in business in 2017 and bid for the contract for the new cars. But a few years prior, Inekon struggled to provide streetcars on time for Seattle’s First Hill line. At the time, the former mayor’s office called the delay “unacceptable.”
In September 2017, Seattle signed a contract with CAF USA to provide 10 cars for about $52 million.
The contract allowed for longer and heavier cars, and CAF USA’s offer for the project signaled bigger cars, too. In November 2017, King County Metro questioned how the bigger cars would work with existing maintenance facilities and streetscapes.
CAF, a Spanish company with the “USA” subsidiary, and Skoda, the company that wrote the letter last year, are both known quantities in the streetcar world. Skoda has provided streetcars for Portland and Tacoma, and has collaborated with Inekon. CAF has signed contracts with multiple American cities to provide streetcars.
Both companies also raise potential red flags.
It’s unclear whether Skoda could meet the requirements for the downtown line. If the new line secures the federal funding city officials expect, a portion of the vehicles will have to be produced in the United States under “Buy America” requirements. SDOT points out that it’s unclear from the letter whether Skoda could meet that requirement.
“[The bidding process] would have been the opportunity for them to participate in our procurement process, which would have required them to demonstrate that they had the technical capacity to produce streetcars which met the requirements for our project,” Bergerson said.
Milan Haloun, a Skoda sales area manager for North America, said by email the company is working to be able to comply with those requirements and the city could have asked for more clarification.
Some cities have struggled with CAF vehicles.
Around the time Seattle was awaiting delayed Inekon cars for the First Hill line, CAF was making similar headlines in Kansas City and Cincinnati, where the city called the process “deeply frustrating.” After cars arrived there, they had mechanical issues and problems running in cold weather.
SDOT does not believe CAF can build a smaller vehicle in its American plant, said SDOT project manager Eric Tweit.
Carl Jackson, a former operations and maintenance supervisor on the South Lake Union line, said he has worked with CAF cars in other cities and was “unexcited about the quality.”
But after the headaches on First Hill, Jackson acknowledged he “would have been wary” of Inekon.
After receiving Skoda’s letter about smaller cars, Jackson wonders, “How deep did the city go [looking into it]?”
Rick Gustafson, a consultant whose firm has advised Seattle on streetcar projects and who previously worked as executive director of the organization that runs Portland’s streetcar, described Skoda’s letter as essentially a stunt. Gustafson said he is skeptical Inekon or Skoda could have complied with Buy America requirements.
“CAF produces a very good car,” he said.
Modifications to accommodate the larger cars could prove cheaper than starting over on a new contract and could “open your options in the future when you want to buy more cars,” Gustafson said.