[Update, 4:45pm: Mayor Murray has responded with a statement: “I share the public’s frustration that the First Hill streetcar has yet to enter service. We continue to focus on fixing the problems this administration inherited. SDOT renegotiated the penalties for late delivery to make the delays more painful for the manufacturer, which now owes the City nearly $800,000 for failure to meet deadlines. This delay is unacceptable. If these higher penalties are not successful in motivating the contractor to complete its work, we will be forced to consider other alternatives.”]
Confirming rumors we’d been hearing recently, King 5 and Capitol Hill Seattle reported yesterday that that the First Hill Streetcar still has no estimated opening date, and that the line may not launch until 2016, nearly two years late. It is now a very real possibility that ULink may open first.
In addition to previous problems like failed fire tests and extreme procurement delays, SDOT Director Kubly told the Transportation Committee yesterday in a report that new problems abound: software glitches, propulsion problems, water damage in 6 out of 7 inverters, and unfinished items like wayfinding graphics and the customer information system. Apparently one of the inverters has been shipped back to Switzerland for maintenance. Inekon is paying hefty fines of $750,000 for their share of the delays, but it should be noted that this is 0.5% of the project budget, or roughly the amount King County Metro spends every 5 hours.
This streetcar project can now fairly be described as a disaster in conception, planning, and project management. Even if the bulk of the blame should be shouldered by Czech company Inekon, it is difficult to point to many decisions made along the way that will lead to the purported intent of transit: superior mobility outcomes. In the end, we will have spent $132m to build a mixed-traffic line with independent power, proprietary battery technology, purpose-built cars, circuitous routing, inadequate frequency, an average 7 mph speed, and an unfixable right-of-way design that permanently precludes transit priority. The ghost of Rube Goldberg is amused.
To be fair, the streetcar will do some good things. It will mitigate some of the overly radial focus of the bus network, enabling crosstown trips long underserved on Routes 9 and 60. It will permanently connect the new Yesler Terrace to the International District for the first time. And it will likely be a hit with Sounder riders headed for Harborview or Swedish who currently suffer a 3-seat ride and a crush loaded 3 & 4 on James Street.
But by most metrics, the line will perform poorly and will be unlikely to improve. Short of tearing up tracks, rechannelizing the roadway, reinstalling the tracks, removing parking, restricting turns, and/or banning cars on Broadway, we’re largely stuck with what we’ve built. Thankfully we’re poised not to make the same mistake with the Center City Connector, with dedicated right of way virtually guaranteed. But the integrated lines will still suffer from their weakest link, with trains on First Avenue delayed on account of peak hour cars queuing on First Hill. This entire experience inspires everything but confidence.