The new streetcar will run in its own lanes along First Avenue, linking Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines in South Lake Union and on First Hill.
Construction on Seattle’s new First Avenue streetcar line is well underway and moves to stop the project have not materialized, despite blustery threats from City Council members.
Utility work along the line began about two weeks ago. A week before that, at a City Council budget hearing, council members expressed serious skepticism about streetcar expansion and indicated they’d like to see the city spend its dollars elsewhere.
“I’m interested in council members who are as motivated as I am to question our investments,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold, a longtime streetcar skeptic, said on Oct. 16, “and potentially look at other options for this funding.”
The $177 million project will run in its own lanes along First Avenue, linking Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines in South Lake Union and on First Hill.
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Projected to open in 2020, It includes an anticipated $83 million in federal money ($58 million of which has been secured), but the remaining $94 million would be paid for by local taxes and utility bills.
Herbold was not alone in questioning the project. Three other council members expressed concern over whether the new streetcar was the best use of city dollars.
“There’s no proposal to cut funding for the streetcar,” Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), said. “We respect the council process and look forward to moving ahead with this commitment to provide taxpayers with an additional transit option.”
Herbold, who chairs the City Council budget committee, did not respond to repeated interview requests sent over the last three weeks to discuss the streetcar.
The budget process continues through Nov. 20. Herbold’s office also did not respond when asked if she would propose any changes to the streetcar’s funding.
She has long been among the streetcar’s most vocal critics, arguing that the project will struggle to meet optimistic financial and ridership projections and that the city’s money would be better spent on expanding bus service.
“The streetcar, from my perspective, has limited utility as a transportation infrastructure tool,” Herbold said at the Oct. 16 meeting. “We really need to be evaluating our investment on how well we are helping people get to and from their day-to-day obligations.”
Three other council members joined her in questioning the project at that meeting.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said, “There’s some conflict in the community over whether this is a good way for us to be spending our money or not.”
Councilmember Kirsten Harris-Talley expressed concern about dedicating resources to streetcars with “finite routes” instead of buses “which allow us flexibility in, quite frankly, a city that’s growing quite quickly.”
Councilmember Kshama Sawant asked if downtown was the most urgent place to invest transit dollars.
She repeatedly cited a lengthy attack on the streetcar project by former Councilmember Nick Licata, urging her colleagues to read Licata’s post on his website.
“Shouldn’t we be expanding transit routes and also transit frequency in other parts of the city where people are too low-income to actually maintain cars?” Sawant said. “I certainly have grave questions about this not being the best use of our money.”
But none, so far, has followed up on those questions and concerns with actual proposals.
Streetcar defenders, including several downtown business associations, say the expansion will provide a clear, easy route through the densest, most congested part of the city.
And, they say, connecting the two existing streetcar lines and providing a one-seat ride from South Lake Union, past Pike Place Market and the stadiums, to First Hill is the best way to maximize existing infrastructure.
SDOT projects an exponential surge in ridership once the new line opens — from about 5,200 daily riders on the two lines combined this year, to about 22,000 in 2020.
“We have really great transit to get people in and out of downtown, whether it’s light rail or the buses or Sounder or ferries, you can get here,” said Andrew Glass Hastings, SDOT’s director of transit and mobility.
“Once you get here, it’s difficult and not necessarily intuitive on how you get through downtown,” he said.