Design work will resume soon on the delayed downtown streetcar, but the project remains years from completion and still faces a multimillion-dollar funding gap.
The Seattle City Council on Monday approved a $9 million loan to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to continue design and engineering work for the project.
The 1.3-mile segment, once slated to open in 2020, would connect Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines in First Hill and South Lake Union, which together carried about 1.7 million riders last year. SDOT projects building the new line would more than triple streetcar ridership.
Mayor Jenny Durkan paused the project last year amid rising projected costs to build and operate the line. In January, Durkan said she wanted the city to go ahead with the project, but she has not yet signaled how she plans to fill a $65 million funding gap to build the line.
The $9 million loan will come from the city’s information-technology department and be repaid through the expected $143.5 million sale of the city-owned South Lake Union property known as the Mercer Mega Block. SDOT would use the money to hire an outside consultant to do further design work, which would help the department come up with new cost and schedule estimates for the project.
The council approved the loan with a 6-1 vote Monday. Councilmembers M. Lorena González and Kshama Sawant were absent.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who has long been skeptical of the project and its ridership projections, voted no. Herbold said she worries that money needed to build or operate the streetcar could starve funding for other transportation projects.
“Downtown is well covered by buses, and we have a light-rail line where the center city streetcar would go,” Herbold said.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw supported the loan but raised concerns about the cost — “whether the juice is worth the squeeze” — and whether SDOT has sufficiently planned for the project’s impact on freight downtown. “But I do see the value of having a unified connected system.”
At recent meetings about the project, business representatives from downtown and the Chinatown International District urged council members to move ahead with the project. “Please keep your promise,” read one speaker’s sign.
Don Blakeney, vice president of advocacy and economic development at the Downtown Seattle Association, called Monday’s vote an “indication of growing confidence in the project.”
Dedicated streetcar lanes planned for the First Avenue route will mean a faster and more reliable ride than some buses, Blakeney said. “We want to make sure you have a lot of options going through the city center.”
The city’s latest estimates say the project will cost about $286 million, including $78 million in utility work. That leaves a funding shortfall of $65 million for streetcar construction and $23 million for utilities work.
That budget could change after the new design work. SDOT already has spent about $45 million on the project.
SDOT expects construction to start in 2022 and full service to begin in 2026.
SDOT says the $9 million in work is needed to come up with better cost estimates, particularly for work that is necessary to accommodate the streetcars the city ordered for the new line, which are longer and heavier than the cars the city now uses.
Consultants will begin designing ways to strengthen South Jackson Street, alter stations and redesign the maintenance facility to fit the new cars.
Earlier reviews of the project estimated that could cost up to $17 million, but SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe has said those numbers were “conceptual.”
It’s still unclear whether the city will stick with its contract for the new cars. SDOT already has signed a $52 million contract to buy 10 streetcars, but the department may reconsider that contract. SDOT has already spent about $5 million on the vehicle contract and the cost to cancel the contract is still unknown, according to a city staff memo.
When the new line is open, it will require ongoing funding from the city for operations, as the current lines do. The first year the new line is open, the full system is expected to need about $18 million in city funding to supplement money from fares and other sources.