The city of Seattle has known since last year that there could be problems with how its new streetcars will fit into existing facilities. But how serious those problems are remains unknown.
The Seattle Department of Transportation has known since at least last fall about potential compatibility issues with the new, larger streetcars the city ordered as it planned to expand its streetcar system across downtown.
But how serious those issues are — big enough to add significant costs, or just routine foibles that come with any large project — remains an open question, as does the future of the new streetcar line.
Mayor Jenny Durkan in March halted the streetcar expansion — which would connect the city’s two fragmented lines with a new track along First Avenue — after a Seattle Times report about increased costs to operate the system.
Durkan hired an independent consultant, KPMG, to review the project’s costs and benefits. That review was supposed to be completed this past month, but Durkan’s office said Tuesday that it has proved more complicated than expected and should now be completed in August.
The mayor’s office has declined to release draft copies of the KPMG report.
Durkan’s office also said on Tuesday that “concurrently with KPMG’s review” they’d learned the new streetcars, ordered in the fall for the expanded system, are bigger than the city’s current streetcars, raising questions about how they would fit with existing tracks and maintenance garages.
But the city Department of Transportation (SDOT) knew of at least some of these issues last year, since shortly after the $52 million contract for 10 new streetcars was signed.
Almost all rail lines, the Seattle Streetcar included, operate on a standard gauge — the distance between the two rails. Both the current Seattle streetcars, manufactured by Inekon, and the newly ordered ones, made by CAF USA, are standard gauge, with wheels 1.435 meters apart to fit on the tracks. The body of the older Inekon streetcars is one centimeter wider than the CAF cars.
But the new CAF cars are longer and heavier than the Inekon cars.
The CAF cars weigh 81,461 pounds; the Inekon cars weigh about 60,200 pounds.
The CAF cars are 75 feet long; the Inekon cars are 66 feet long.
That nine-foot difference in length was raised as an issue this past fall.
SDOT signed the contract with CAF in late September, with the first of the streetcars due for delivery in June 2019.
In early November, King County Metro, which operates the streetcars for SDOT, wrote to the city with concerns over how the new cars would fit in the agency’s two cramped maintenance shops, where below-ground service pits were custom-built for the shorter Inekon cars.
“Has the increased length of the new car, 75 feet vs. 66 feet, been applied to the yard parking drawings showing the storage capacity?” Tedd Hankins, Metro’s streetcar superintendent, wrote to Chris Eilerman, the city’s streetcar manager. “Also have we verified that the pits are long enough to still us[e] at both bases?”
A week later, on Nov. 11, Hankins again wrote to Eilerman with concerns related to how the longer cars would work with the specifics of the route’s streetscape.
“In addition to shop interferences, at Broadway the front of the new car will interfere with a driveway when berthed,” Hankins wrote. “We also can currently place a down car at the end of Broadway and get another turned around in front of it, and that will not be possible. This also means that we will not be able to get a CAF car in to tow or be towed. The existing loop to get out also will not work for the CAF car.”
Hankins is referring to the area near the Capitol Hill light-rail station where the First Hill streetcar ends its trip and turns around on a wishbone-shaped trackway.
The emails were part of a huge trove of documents previously obtained by The Seattle Times through a public records request to King County Metro. It is not clear from the emails provided what SDOT’s response was, and Eilerman and SDOT did not respond to requests for comment.
Ultimately, it’s still unclear how important these issues are.
Combined with uncertain and rising costs on the now $200 million project, they’ve been enough to give Durkan pause, leaving the project in limbo.
But City Councilmember Rob Johnson, a longtime supporter of the expanded streetcar, said he has some concerns about the project’s funding, but not the sizing details.
The streetcar project has been planned since at least 2012, and has essentially secured $50 million in federal funding, with $25 million more likely to follow. Supporters tout it as an efficient way to get across downtown and improve the city’s existing lines.
“I trust that we do this work all the time from a technical perspective, so I’m not concerned about those aspects of the project,” Johnson said. “I think the mayor is very detail-oriented. She’s bringing them up because she’s read all of the KPMG report.
“For me that’s an indication she clearly has put on her lawyer hat and has additional questions about those details,” Johnson continued. “I don’t have the same level of concerns and I’d like to think that has something to do with my two decades of experience working in transportation.”
Keith Kyle, the executive director of Seattle Subway, a transit advocacy organization, saw a more nefarious reason for the mayor’s actions.
He pointed to the identical gauges of the two streetcars and wondered why the mayor’s office said that the new streetcars were wider than the old ones.
“We think this is the start of a predetermined decision by the mayor’s office to kill the project,” Kyle said. “We really just have a bunch of questions and it all comes back to what is the purpose of releasing that information right now, because we do have a study that is supposedly coming back soon. There is a draft that’s out there. Why aren’t we getting that information?”