Seattle is mostly prepared to deliver a new rapid bus line along Madison Street, but the project will cost more and open later than previously expected, according to a newly released federal review.
The Madison Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project — once expected to cost $120 million and open last year — will now have a budget of $133.4 million and is planned to open in 2024. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is counting on a $60 million Federal Transit Administration grant to make the project happen, but a review last year found the department was unprepared to manage a major FTA-funded construction project.
Now, a consultant for the FTA says SDOT has addressed staffing issues and met technical requirements. The consultant said the department still had work to do completing safety documents and signing agreements with King County Metro and other agencies, though SDOT later said it has since finished most of that work.
The long-promised line, approved by voters as part of the Move Seattle levy in 2015 and Sound Transit 3 in 2016, could offer a key connection. Buses would run every six minutes from Madison Valley to downtown. Like other RapidRide lines featuring red Metro buses, the route would have dedicated bus-only lanes to improve speed and other amenities like real-time information about when buses are arriving. Connecting dense neighborhoods like the Central District, Capitol Hill and First Hill, the line is expected to attract 12,000 to 18,000 daily riders.
Yet, the project has faced roadblocks from the beginning.
After passage of the Move Seattle levy, Seattle had to “reset” that levy because the city couldn’t deliver all the projects voters had been promised. SDOT still promised to build the Madison line, but federal money for the project was on hold at one point because the city and King County Metro couldn’t get the electric buses once promised. The city and Metro now plan to use hybrid diesel-electric buses.
Then, late last year, a consulting firm reviewing the project for the FTA found SDOT had not dedicated enough staff to the project and lacked other preparations. Already this year, SDOT had pushed the expected opening from 2022 to 2023.
The consultants’ latest review recommended adding another $6 million to the budget, in addition to about $6 million added earlier this year. The higher budget is meant to cover increased costs due to a longer construction timeline and to provide contingency in case of unexpected costs. Seattle will cover the extra costs with funding from Sound Transit and savings on other projects, like the Lander Street overpass, said SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe.
Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee, said the increased budget was “prudent” and the timeline “more achievable.”
SDOT hopes to secure the federal grant by later this year and start construction next spring, but it remains to be seen whether the FTA will indeed offer the money on that timeline.
The Madison line was included on a list of projects for which a federal investigator subpoenaed records from SDOT in December. Zimbabwe said he has not received indications that the investigation will delay funding for the Madison project.
Today, SDOT faces serious financial challenges due to pandemic-related losses in some of its key revenue sources, like parking taxes and fees, not to mention $70 million needed to deal with the closed West Seattle highrise bridge before deciding how to fully repair or replace the structure. Facing a $55 million revenue loss this year out of its $700 million budget, SDOT has halted more than two dozen transportation projects, including the downtown streetcar.
Zimbabwe said the city is still committed to the Madison bus line. “Voters have repeatedly approved this as a key transit investment and it remains a really important investment for the future of the city,” he said.
Transit ridership has fallen dramatically during the outbreak, but SDOT believes that by 2024 the route along Madison Street “is the type of place we would expect to continue to see robust ridership,” Zimbabwe said, because of nearby housing, hospitals, Seattle University and connections to downtown.
This story has been updated with additional information provided by SDOT.