At one time, a new streetcar through downtown Seattle was expected to open this year. Instead, 2020 will bring more delays for the troubled project.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will stop work on the planned 1.3-mile streetcar line as part of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to balance this year’s city budget in the face of a $400 million shortfall this year caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The streetcar is the highest profile in a list of more than two dozen transportation projects being halted as the department faces a $55 million revenue drop this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
An update from SDOT Wednesday said the department was “very intentionally using the word ‘pause.’”
“This project … is currently paused, not canceled,” the department wrote. A summary of cuts provided to City Council members by the city budget office said the project would be “reduced to minimal project development activities” and its “schedule would be extended indefinitely.”
After years of hang-ups — from questions about the size of the streetcars the city ordered to ballooning costs — another setback is significant and could give opponents an opportunity to try to shelve the project for good.
Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee and previously wanted to halt the streetcar, supported pausing the project and said it should receive private funding from downtown businesses that support it.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, a long time streetcar skeptic, said she may want to fully remove the project from SDOT’s budget to “signal our hopes that we are not just pausing the project, but that we’re canceling it.”
Set to run along First Avenue, the streetcar route would connect two existing streetcar lines.
Businesses in the Chinatown International District, transit advocates and neighborhood groups had backed the project. Supporters said they understood the budget pressures.
Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, said pausing the project was a “prudent choice,” but she hopes it will return because of its support in the Chinatown International District.
“When we make a promise to a community of color, we need to back that up because we’ve seen so many promises broken to them,” Echohawk said.
While SDOT said the project wasn’t canceled, some wonder whether the latest delay could spell death for the project — and even Seattle’s other streetcar lines.
Both the First Hill and South Lake Union lines operate at a deficit and the First Hill line gets money from Sound Transit that is set to expire in 2023. The new addition was expected to significantly increase ridership to the streetcar system.
“Without that central piece, there will be pressure to kill those [other streetcar lines] too,” said Doug Trumm, executive director at The Urbanist, which has supported the new streetcar.
Delaying “may end up costing us more money down the road if we do plan to build the [streetcar] and we really think Seattle should do that,” Trumm said.
At last estimate, the streetcar was expected to cost $286 million, including about $78 million in utility work, and faced a combined $88 million shortfall.
This year, however, SDOT was to spend only about $9 million for more design and engineering work. The department had selected a firm to do that work, but didn’t agree to a contract because COVID-19 hit, SDOT said.
Some long-term funding to build the project has become more uncertain.
The mayor and council last year agreed on a new tax on Uber and Lyft rides with a portion of that money to go toward the streetcar. Rides on those services have plummeted during the pandemic, and it’s unclear when demand may return.
With the tax starting July 1, SDOT expected to get about $3.5 million this year, but now expects to bring in less than half that, according to city council staff.
SDOT will halt other transportation projects, too.
The department faces a $55 million loss of revenue in 2020, out of its roughly $700 million budget, and is pausing work totaling about $58 million, according to the department.
SDOT is seeing the largest percentage reductions of any city department because it has lost money from the general fund and from dedicated funds like the commercial parking tax “and they have to deal with the West Seattle Bridge,” city Budget Director Ben Noble told the council Wednesday.
Along with the streetcar, SDOT will pause road work on Sand Point Way Northeast and 23rd Avenue East; Safe Routes to School projects near Thornton Creek Elementary and Ingraham High School; and planning on several bike lanes, including a bike lane on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, a trail extension in Sodo and a connection between the waterfront and Elliott Bay trail.
About $10 million from the Move Seattle levy will be shifted from building new projects to operations and maintenance.
A message from SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said the department would pause some projects this year while the department looks for ways to save money “while prioritizing racial and social justice in our transportation system.”
“It is possible, however, that some projects paused will not restart,” Zimbabwe wrote, “if they no longer make sense for the new city we find ourselves in over the coming years.”
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