Seattle transportation officials are seeking City Council approval to spend $9 million on more planning and design of the downtown streetcar, thrusting debate over the troubled project back into the public eye after a several-month hiatus.

The project, once expected to open in 2020, would run along First Avenue and connect existing streetcars in South Lake Union and First Hill.

Mayor Jenny Durkan halted the project after The Seattle Times reported that costs to operate the new streetcar system could be higher than the city had previously revealed. An independent review found costs had risen for the project again, and Durkan said there were “too many questions about the true costs of this project and the risks to taxpayers.”

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In January, Durkan unfroze the project, now estimated to open in 2026, but major funding questions remained. The difference between money previously budgeted and new cost estimates left a $65 million shortfall.

It’s still unclear how that gap will be filled.

New design work

The $9 million would fund design work on several parts of the project that need to be reassessed because the streetcars the city ordered are longer and heavier than the cars on the existing lines. The cars will fit on existing tracks, but will be too big for the current maintenance facility and some stops, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says.

The money would pay for a third-party design consultant and some staff time. It would be funded through a loan across city departments, shifting money from the city’s information technology department to SDOT and then repaying it through the anticipated sale of the city-owned Mercer Mega Block in South Lake Union, according to Durkan’s office.

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Specifically, the city and consultant would begin designing and estimating costs for strengthening South Jackson Street between Third and Fifth avenues, altering stations on the existing lines and redesigning the maintenance facility.

Earlier reviews of the project estimated it could cost up to $17 million to alter existing roads and maintenance facilities for the larger cars. Those estimates were “conceptual,” said SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe. “This work will get us to a pretty solid defensible number on those.”

The department would then go back to the City Council with new cost estimates for the project. The costs have climbed since 2015 with the latest estimate at about $286 million. The $9 million is part of the anticipated increased budget, not a further increase, Zimbabwe said.

One source of funding for the project, $75 million in expected federal grants, remains up in the air. The city has secured $50 million, but that could lapse in September 2020, SDOT said. That means the city would have to get the $50 million reallocated by the feds, plus the additional $25 million.

Zimbabwe said the city is in close communication with the federal government about the project and the expected grants.

Downtown business interests, businesses in the Chinatown International District and transit advocates have urged the city to forge on with the streetcar, which is projected to dramatically boost streetcar ridership by connecting the existing lines.

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Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, a leading opponent of the project, has raised questions about the project’s value and SDOT’s ability to secure the full $75 million the department is counting on.

Herbold cited the “speculative” federal grant in an email, calling the $9 million loan “good money after bad.”

SDOT will brief a City Council committee about the $9 million request Tuesday, and the council will have to approve the loan.

Ridership up, reliability down

SDOT also released new ridership numbers for the existing streetcar lines in South Lake Union and First Hill, showing an overall ridership increase of 18% from 2017 to 2018.

About 1.2 million people rode the First Hill Streetcar in 2018 and another 500,000 rode the South Lake Union line, according to SDOT. Both are below earlier ridership projections. A 2017 SDOT report listed original ridership projections of 1.3 million riders on the First Hill route in 2018 and 912,000 on the South Lake Union line.

SDOT is “encouraged by the increase in ridership,” said Chris Eilerman, SDOT’s streetcar and transit corridors manager. “That’s for two lines that aren’t connected, so if we talk about the potential for connecting those two lines and additional transit ridership that’s out here that would utilize the system in that scenario, we’re talking about a lot of people.”

The First Hill line is outperforming South Lake Union not just in ridership, but in how often the streetcar runs on time.

First Hill ridership was up 31% in 2018, while South Lake Union ridership fell 4%, according to SDOT. In the first quarter of 2019, both lines are seeing increased ridership, SDOT says.

Like other agencies, the city considers a streetcar on time if it arrives within five minutes of its scheduled time. Cars on the First Hill line were about 88% reliable in 2018, better than its past two years of existence.

But the South Lake Union line, which has been running since 2008, saw a significant drop in reliability over the last three years. Cars arrived on time only about 39% of the time last year. SDOT blames construction and traffic in South Lake Union, including drivers who block the streetcar lanes.

SDOT is installing new signs and red paint to try to keep drivers out of the way of the streetcar.