The Seattle City Council recently dedicated $9 million toward the long-planned First Avenue streetcar. The money — budgeted for design and engineering work — marks the return of a project that once faced the threat of cancellation.
Set to open eight years later than once projected at a cost of tens of millions more than originally expected, the project faces a steep path. But supporters say it could attract huge ridership and offer a key connection between existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines.
As the project returns to the spotlight, we asked Traffic Lab readers for their questions about the downtown streetcar. Here are answers to some of the most common questions.
Do people actually ride the streetcars?
Together last year, people took a total of 1.7 million rides on the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars.
But the picture is different on each of the two lines. Ridership in First Hill grew by about 31% while ridership on the South Lake Union line fell by 4% from 2017 to 2018. In a neighborhood choked with congestion, the South Lake Union line has been plagued with reliability issues. Streetcars on the South Lake Union line arrived on time only about 39% of the time last year.
What revenue are the streetcars bringing in?
Like most transportation projects, the costs to run the streetcar aren’t fully covered by fares. The existing lines also get funding from King County Metro, Sound Transit, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), sponsorships and the City of Seattle.
Last year the two lines together brought in about $9 million in total revenues and cost about $12 million to operate, with the city covering the gap. If the new line is built, the full system would require about $18 million in city funding in its first year of operation, now expected to be 2026. If not, the existing system could need about $13 million in city funding in 2024. Those estimates assume a loss of current Metro and Sound Transit funding that is set to expire.
How will the new line work? Will I have to transfer? And won’t it get stuck in traffic?
Riding the new route along Stewart Street and First Avenue could offer a more pleasant experience than the current — sometimes glacially slow — lines, thanks to a dedicated streetcar lane along First Avenue and parts of Stewart.
The city does not have plans to add dedicated lanes to the existing streetcar lines, but could consider “spot improvements” in the future, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says.
At the busiest travel times, trips between Westlake and King Street would take 10 minutes, SDOT projects.
As for a transfer, plans call for two “loops” overlapping on First Avenue, which would require riders to switch trolleys if they wanted to travel from South Lake Union to Capitol Hill. SDOT says it’s considering allowing for a single trip.
What’s the argument between a streetcar and an electric bus in its own lane?
There are some Metro routes that cross downtown between South Lake Union and the Pioneer Square area. In a report assuming the project would open in 2022, the consulting firm KPMG projected the combined system, with the new streetcar along First Avenue, would carry between 5 million and 6 million riders, triple the current ridership.
Supporters of the streetcar argue that the streetcar could attract “a brand-new audience” because streetcars are “easy to navigate and understand,” said Emily Mannetti, a spokeswoman for the Downtown Seattle Association. Another difference is that each streetcar can hold around 160 people, whereas Metro’s largest, 60-foot articulated bus holds between 50-60 people, plus standing room for an additional 20 people.
In its grant application to the FTA, SDOT wrote that diesel-electric hybrid buses and an electric trolley buses were considered but eliminated because of “strong public preference” for a streetcar and inefficient transfers between rail and buses at either end of downtown.
And even an electric bus that ran in its own lane could still be costly.
What exactly is the deal with the bigger streetcars? Have they arrived?
Some Seattleites were left scratching their heads at the news that the city ordered cars for the new line that are 9 feet longer and about 21,000 pounds heavier than the cars in use, creating compatibility issues with the existing lines.
The new cars are expected to fit on the existing tracks, but SDOT says they will require bridge strengthening and some alterations to platforms and maintenance facilities. That could cost up to $17 million.
The city has offered varying reasons for ordering the bigger cars, but did so after its previous provider, Inekon, fell behind schedule delivering cars for the First Hill line. The city signed a $52 million contract with another company for 10 cars in 2017, but they have not been built or delivered, according to SDOT.
SDOT has spent $5.4 million on the contract to purchase the streetcars so far, according to city staff. The department hasn’t said what it would cost to cancel that contract altogether and find a different supplier.
Why is the project so delayed?
A project once set to open in 2018 is now planned to start running in 2026. City officials blame an “aggressive” early timeline. “It became apparent certainly by 2017 that (the earlier timeline) wasn’t realistic,” Seattle Budget Office Director Ben Noble told the City Council in February.
Seattle broke ground on the streetcar project in late 2017, starting with relocating utilities in Pioneer Square. But trouble emerged when construction bids for the project signaled higher than expected costs and in March 2018, The Seattle Times reported that King County Metro estimated operating the new streetcar would cost more than the city had previously said.
Soon, Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered a review of the project and then halted all work for further investigation. Durkan did not signal she wanted to move ahead with the project until January and SDOT didn’t seek the additional design money until late July.
The city had secured $50 million of $75 million in expected federal funding for the streetcar, but that could lapse next year. The FTA will also want to reassess the project given the new information about its cost, Noble said. The city estimates it could take up to a year-and-a-half to get through the FTA’s grant process.
That has pushed the city’s planned construction date to 2022 and full service to 2026.
How much has the delay increased the cost?
Delays can drive up the cost of any major infrastructure project if labor and supplies get more expensive over time. In an external review of the streetcar project last year, the firm KPMG estimated that if the line opened in 2022, it would incur an additional $8 million in “escalation costs” and “this amount will continue to increase with project delays.”
Isn’t some of the increased cost due to utilities, not the streetcar?
Yes, of the latest $286 million budget, about $78 million is for utility work the city describes as “critical and long overdue” that would need to be done anyway. Along with the $65 million shortfall in money to build the streetcar itself, the city needs $23 million more for utilities work.
Over the years, multiple factors have driven cost increases, including utility work, adding additional contingency funds, work needed because of the bigger cars, and escalation due to delays.
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Information from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report.