"We now know the real numbers on what this is going to cost and it's tens of millions more than what anyone was ever told," Mayor Jenny Durkan said. "This is not good news, and I know that."
The cost to build Seattle’s stalled downtown streetcar expansion project, a 1.2-mile stretch of track along First Avenue to connect the city’s two existing streetcar lines, has soared to $252 million, according to a newly released consultant’s report.
That’s an increase of more than $100 million from 2015, when costs were first estimated. The project remains in limbo, with no firm estimate as to when officials will decide whether to build it. The turmoil could lead to a cascading delay: The city is depending on a $75 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, but the FTA will now want to review the project’s details again if the city decides to move forward, city officials said.
That process could take eight to 18 months after the city makes its own decision, Mayor Jenny Durkan said.
“We now know the real numbers on what this is going to cost and it’s tens of millions more than what anyone was ever told,” Durkan said. “This is not good news, and I know that.”
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“It’s really disappointing to me frankly, as a Seattle resident, that the kind of work that we’ve done in this process wasn’t done at the outset when the project was being planned,” Durkan said.
She faulted prior leadership at the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) for mismanaging the streetcar and other large projects and said that a number of people have left the agency but that she couldn’t comment more specifically on personnel.
“Those projects were not managed well and I will say that the people who are there today managing those projects are new to this administration,” Durkan said, while praising rank-and-file SDOT employees.
But the report also found that SDOT’s projected operating costs for the new streetcar system, which were disputed by King County Metro, “appear to be reasonable,” although the two agencies will continue discussions. The dispute over operating costs led Durkan to halt construction and hire the consultant to review the project.
The consultant found some risk that the city would have to chip in more money to operate the system — it projected anywhere from a $1.9 million annual surplus to a $2.6 million annual deficit. The costs would lead to certain deficits, from $5 million to $10 million a year, if the city is unable to replace funding it receives from Sound Transit, which is set to disappear in 2024.
And scrapping the long-planned streetcar expansion would mean a sunk cost for the city of $55 million, $31 million of which has already been spent, according to the report from consultant KPMG.
The project, which began in 2012, has been on hold for five months and the long-awaited KPMG report is more than two months overdue. Durkan initially halted the project in March after a Seattle Times report that said Metro believed SDOT may have underestimated the costs to run the new system by as much as 50 percent. Metro operates the streetcars under contract with SDOT.
The city has ordered 10 new streetcars for the project, at a cost of $52 million, that are longer and heavier than the ones it currently owns. The KPMG report cites potential increased costs to accommodate existing facilities to the new, larger streetcars, but does not factor them in to its estimates.
The KPMG report also predicts an exponential increase in ridership if the streetcar expansion is built, although it doesn’t see quite as rosy a scenario as SDOT had previously projected. With no expansion, the city’s existing First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar lines would carry about 1.5 million passengers annually in 2022.
With the new streetcar along First Avenue, the report forecasts that the combined system would carry between 5 million and 6 million riders in 2022, the project’s new estimated opening date. SDOT had previously projected that the expanded streetcar system would open in 2020 and carry more than 6.8 million riders.
A preliminary city review of the project, completed in the weeks before Durkan ordered the halt, found that construction costs had risen. What a few years ago was a $150 million project became a $177 million project and, as of March, was estimated to be more than $200 million.
But there had been mostly silence from the mayor’s office since. KPMG submitted a draft report in early June, and the consultant, at the time, said it wouldn’t be long before it finished the final report.
The streetcar project had essentially secured — but not yet received — $50 million in federal funding, with $25 million more likely to follow. The new streetcar line would run in its own lanes, eliminating the slowdowns that plague the First Hill and South Lake Union lines that share space with traffic. Supporters say the project would be an efficient way to get across downtown and improve the city’s transit.
The existing streetcars, fragmented on opposite sides of the downtown core, have failed to match ridership projections. But SDOT has predicted a ridership boom if the new line gets built — from about 5,000 streetcar riders a day now, to about 22,000 with the expansion and about 30,000 daily riders by 2035.
“We know we need more transit, we know that if we have good transit people get on it and ride it,” Durkan said. “Every dollar we spend on one transit project can diminish where we spend on another transit project.”
In late July, Durkan added more uncertainty to the project, with the announcement that the new streetcars the city has ordered are longer and heavier than the ones currently in use and might not be compatible with the current track and maintenance barns. Durkan’s office said a more detailed “engineering review” would be needed to evaluate those concerns.
The mayor’s office gave few details on the potential sizing issues and critics accused Durkan of cooking up a rationale to kill the project. The KPMG review also gives few details on the sizing questions.
King County Metro officials, in internal emails obtained through a public records request, had previously told SDOT of possible issues with how the new cars fit in maintenance shops and how much room they have to turn around at the end of the track on Broadway.
KPMG found the issues to be resolvable but wrote they would require “additional analysis” and listed the cost of potentially altering facilities to accommodate the new streetcars as a key issue driving cost increases.