The city says a new First Avenue streetcar, running in its own lanes and connecting with the other two lines, would boost ridership.
A Seattle City Council committee accepted a $50 million federal grant Thursday to help build new streetcar tracks down First Avenue — despite hearing fresh data showing weak ridership and reliability for the city’s South Lake Union and First Hill lines.
Members are gambling that a quicker design, where trains run in their own center lanes every five minutes, will attract 20,000 daily users in 2020, for a total near 26,000 in a three-part connected loop.
This link, called Central City Connector, would also touch the Pike Place Market, ferry docks, Pioneer Square and regional transit stations.
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“We anticipate high-volume ridership because most people don’t want to deal with the fuss of parking, prolonged walking or deciding how to get into farther reaches of the city. This solves multiple transit dilemmas with one rail,” city transportation spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said.
Despite clear right of way, the trains would still run late if they were stuck in congestion back in South Lake Union (SLU), Councilmember Sally Bagshaw warned.
The SLU line served only 518,248 riders last year, a one-third drop since 2013, “due to reduced reliability (i.e. congestion) and increased transit options,” a council staff analyst reported.
The streetcar’s segment on Westlake Avenue North was converted in 2016 from general traffic to a transit-only lane, where the busy 40 and C bus routes overlap and drain off short-distance users. Meanwhile, trains still get stuck at the starting line, where gridlock fills trackway crossings at Fairview Avenue, Valley and sometimes Mercer streets.
The route recovered only $1.11 per rider in fares and 27 percent of operating costs, from 40 riders per train hour.
The newer First Hill line carried 840,049 people, or just 32 per train-operating hour, in 2016. Service was suspended three weeks in March, after a circuit failure caused a train to roll down Broadway without brakes.
Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly said he’s studying a plan to reduce congestion. General traffic would move into a new left lane on Broadway from Pine to Marion streets, so streetcars and trolley buses would get the right lane to themselves.
Despite proposals by the Trump administration to scuttle transit grants, Congress approved the First Avenue line’s $50 million for 2017. Seattle officials anticipate another $25 million from the federal government next year, leaving local taxes to cover half the $152 million cost of the track and trains.
Transit lanes would leave one general lane each way on First Avenue and eliminate curbside parking.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold worried the city would badly miss its perennially upbeat forecasts. The Sustainability and Transportation Committee passed her amendment Thursday to require frequent cash-flow reports and a plan to cover losses, beyond those now covered by Metro or Sound Transit. The full City Council is expected to take a final vote in July.
“I’m a bus person, my constituents are bus people,” said Herbold, whose district covers West Seattle and South Park. “We’re not going to see light rail for a long time. I don’t want to see transit dollars for city service used to cover operational shortfalls.”
The voter-approved Sound Transit 3 plan aims for West Seattle light-rail service by 2030.
Councilmember Rob Johnson warned that to spurn or delay Federal Transit Administration money would “raise red flags” for bigger projects. He didn’t specifically mention the $1.2 billion at stake to support Northgate-Lynnwood light rail or $500 million to reach Federal Way.