The First Hill Streetcar alignment preferred by the Capitol Hill Community Council, including an extension north to Aloha.

The Seattle City Council is set to vote on a resolution that would endorse the idea of extending the First Hill streetcar north to Aloha. According to jseattle of Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Ethan Malone said during a meeting of the Capitol Hill Community Council last evening that the draft language allowing the city to move forward with the streetcar project will allow Seattle’s Department of Transportation to attempt to secure funding for the extension.

An extension north to Aloha could boost ridership on the First Hill streetcar and Link light rail, supporters argue. The First Hill Streetcar that went before voters on the 2007 Roads & Transit measure terminated at Aloha, but the scaled back 2008 ST2 measure scaled back funding for the streetcar and put the responsibility for construction on SDOT, who promised it could build the line cheaper. The catch is that SDOT is also responsible for cost overruns.

People who have seen the city council’s draft resolution tell us that the city is not yet setting aside funding for a streetcar extension, but instead simply authorizing SDOT to search for funding. The department would be free to begin discussions with Sound Transit on a way to get help funding preliminary engineering for the extension. SDOT could also come back to the city council itself and ask for funding. As reported on Monday, funding that preliminary engineering would make the extension “shovel-ready” and open it up to federal funding, like so-called small starts or TIGER-like merit-based funding. Having the project shovel-ready could also allow for it to be included in Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s rail expansion measure he plans to bring before local voters next year.

More on the First Hill Streetcar extension after the jump…

The inter-local agreement between ST and SDOT for the First Hill Streetcar specifically allows SDOT to design and build an extension northward as long as it fits within the budget, subject to approval of the Sound Transit board. Rich Sheridan, spokesperson for SDOT, told us that “the agreement allows for [the] possibility” of having Sound Transit fund just preliminary engineering, though that would also be subject to ST board approval.

“The interlocal agreement allows for the possibility of cost savings being applied to extensions, but only with the approval of the Sound Transit Board,” Sheridan told us. “The agreement does not address the timing of any board action on this issue.” That second comment was in response to a Slog story, which apparently misquoted a representative for the Capitol Hill Community Council saying that ST board action must be taken by June.

Sound Transit, for its part, is not anxious to spend any dollars on local projects such as a northward extension of the streetcar line because it has a regional mission and, most seriously, is facing a very difficult financial hurdle. Nearly every project the agency is managing has been asked to cut back costs. Though preliminary engineering would cost between $500,000 and a million dollars — chump change for a multi-billion regional transit expansion plan — ST staff may push the board to not approve any First Hill streetcar plan that includes preliminary engineering for an extension during such frugal times.

Supporters of the extension say that the SDOT’s planning is already saving money, so there’s enough funding for preliminary engineering. SDOT’s construction estimates — though they’re very early, both Sound Transit and city staff caution us — are $7 million below the funding ST has allotted for the project, and the estimates include a 20% contingency, according to a letter that Ethan Malone sent to the First Hill Improvement Association.

Malone told us last month that an extension could be completed in a “matter of months” when funding becomes available, and possibly could open at the same time as the rest of the line. If the extension does get eventually get the approximately $20 million in funding it needs to be built, additional concerns would be the purchase of an additional streetcar and the increased operations costs for a longer line. Funding for those extras would certainly not come from Sound Transit.

The Capitol Hill Community Council has created a Facebook page for its “complete streetcar” proposal, which currently has more than 350 members. The community council is not unimportant in this debate, and were a leading force pushing the Two-Way Broadway option north of Union that is set to be approved by the Seattle City Council next week. The city is currently investigating their proposed Broadway configuration that includes a cycle track.

27 Replies to “City Council to Endorse First Hill Streetcar to Aloha”

  1. Finally someone is showing some leadership on this issue. This is a necessary first step toward getting the extension designed and then built.

    Kudos to the SCC for taking this first step. Hopefully the Mayor will eventually follow their lead.

  2. Just a quick correction. The Capitol Hill Community Council has stayed neutral on the alignment south of Union, which includes the “Two-way Broadway option” mentioned in the article. We advocated for the streetcar to stay two-way on Broadway north of Union, which was a response to SDOTs proposed loop around Cal Anderson Park, which we opposed. SDOT responded to our concerns by eliminating the park loop from consideration. I can see why people are confused on this point, but please note that we made our proposal compatible with all three of the southern alignments.

    1. The post was referring to “Two-Way Broadway,” including north of Union. The other option is referred to as “Two-Way Broadway with Park Loop” in SDOT documents since January of this year.

  3. ST doesn’t have the money to fund the design work for the extension. Since the city will be using ST’s money to build the extension to Aloha, Seattle should just pay the $750,000 and get it done.

    1. This is incorrect. The city will not be using ST’s money to build the extension. The extension costs 20 million, which is well above the estimated amount the existing project will be under budget. Ethan Melone is also well aware that Sound Transit has other priorities and will probably not want to fund construction. What we are asking is for Sound Transit to spend the $750,000 to get the project shovel-ready, then look for federal or local funding to do construction. This is a lot more doable than asking for 20 million. When Sound Transit sees the amount of ridership boost from the extension and the amount of federal money that can be leveraged, I am confident they will support this proposal.

      1. ST is not obligated to fund the study phase and nor should they. Just because $750K is less than $20M doesn’t mean that it is a small number or that ST has it lying around somewhere in their budget. If ST started throwing around and unbudgeted $750K here, there, and everywhere then pretty soon ST could find themselves in financial trouble.

        This $750K design phase needs to be funded by city and/or other sources. Once the city moves this project to “shovel ready” then the hunt for construction funding can begin.

        Look for the SCC to continue moving this forward. This is a city project and the onus is on them. I suspect they will come through.

      2. By that argument, Sound Transit isn’t obligated to fund anything since everything is subject to board approval. No one is arguing that ST is “obligated” to fund preliminary engineering, just that it may make sense to do so. Similarly, the federal government is not obligated to fund the extension but we would love it if they did. SDOT and ST are cooperative agencies.

        The interlocal agreement specifically allows for funding to be spent on a northward extension. Funding just preliminary engineering might make sense because the First Hill project is — so far — well under budget, and in the worst case all cost overruns are the city’s responsibility. Since ST has reduced risk on this project and — if they share the cost of early engineering with Seattle — a small investment of $250-500k won’t bust anyone’s budget.

        On the other hand, ST is very concerned about its finances right now and those concerns are very real. But this is a pool of money budgeted for the First Hill streetcar, with an agreement that specifically allows for funding to be spent on a northward extension. This is not like adding a new Link station or funding a tunnel in downtown Bellevue.

      3. “May” and “should” are not the same thing. ST is obligated to do what they have committed to do within their current budget. They have not, and are not, committed to any part of the Aloha Extension. In fact, the agreement specifically states that ST’s commitment ends at John St.

        Yes, if the construction of the FH streetcar comes in under budget then ST may (at their discretion) contribute to the extension, but the problem is that the extension needs to be designed now and the existence of any surplus won’t be known until later.

        This really is the SCC’s responsibility. After all, it’s only $750K and that really isn’t that much. Compare for example that the Mayor just spent $250K on a whim for a study that showed that the new SR520 bridge isn’t designed well for LR – and everyone knew that already anyhow.

        If the Mayor is willing to blow through $250K to show that something can’t be done, then maybe we should be asking him for a little more to actually GET something done.

      4. You’re using arguments of process when use the word “obligation,” but the interlocal agreement isn’t exactly vague about the extension. “The Project may also include design and construction of the streetcar connector north of the Capitol Hill Station at John Street […] subject to the approval and concurrence of Sound Transit’s Board and the funding limitations provided in Section 3.” ( The language is in the agreement because the idea is not radical. If Sound Transit had chose to limit its obligation, the agreement would not contain language of the sort.

        SDOT is saving Sound Transit millions compared to ST building its own line, SDOT is further saving ST millions by recommending the cheapest alignment, and SDOT is removing financial risk from ST on this project by covering all overruns. It would be simply unconstructive and uncooperative for ST staff to argue, “It’s our money, and we’re only going to find the minimum scope of work no matter what our partners, who have saved us millions and reduced our financial risk, ask for.” That is not how cooperative relationships work, especially one that has proven lucrative for ST.

        ST staff are making this argument not to the public, but to the elected ST board who recognize that the funds in question belong to taxpayers. Board members from Seattle may recognize that every dollar budgeted for East Link is going to be spent. Board members from the rest of the region may note that a more successful streetcar line drives up ridership for the entire line; they may also recognize that lining up federal funding for construction removed a possible expenditure in the next Sound Transit plan to fund any extension.

        I find arguments about perceived scope and obligations unconvincing. The merits of the extension are more important; the right thing to do is to fund preliminary engineering through some means. Why it is incredibly logical for Seattle taxpayers to entirely fund the work through the city coffers, as opposed to Seattle taxpayers through subarea equity funding it through ST? The primary difference is that the city doesn’t have money budgeted for a First Hill Streetcar, whereas ST does have money budgeted for a streetcar that is specifically available for a northward extension. But this is nearly the same group of taxpayers.

        The best thing to do would be for the city and agency to jointly fund preliminary engineering, recognizing that it is both an important local and regional piece of work that is relatively cheap and could save taxpayers millions in the future.

      5. Thank you, John, for your research on this subject. It’s easy to throw around charges of who should or should not fund this project, but these details show that the first attempt at least should be to ask Sound Transit to fund the preliminary engineering and design work.

      6. Actually, ST’s only legal obligations per the agreement are defined in Sec 1 as:

        The Project consists of the design and construction of the Project as set forth in the “Minimum Scope of Work” which is attached hereto as Exhibit A

        Exhibit A then further specifically defines the project as:

        The streetcar connector will directly connect First Hill employment centers to the regional Link light rail system at the International District/Chinatown Station at 5th Avenue S and the Capital Hill Station at Broadway between E. Denny Way and John Street.

        So, yes, the SCC “may” be able to ask ST for more funding, but ST sure isn’t obligated to provide it, and nor should they. Their first obligation is to provide what they have already told the voters they will provide, and to it within budget. Anything beyond that is scoop creep.

        That said, there are still some accounting games that could be played. ST’s maximum contribution to the minimum scope project is capped with the city taking all responsibility for cost overruns that might drive costs above that value.

        It might be possible to amend the agreement to reduce ST’s total funding obligation by $750K with the understanding that ST would frontload the remaining commitment so that the city would be able to complete the extension design now. The city would then accept the risk of all cost overruns above the new amended amount.

        Under such an agreement the city would be banking on the project coming in at least $750K under the current budget, and accepting all the risk if it doesn’t. ST would be receiving budget relief in exchange for frontloading their commitment by $750K. It might work.

      7. Lazarus, what you are proposing here is not necessary. The project is currently expected to be 7 million under budget and that includes a 20% contingency. Bids are also expected to be low due to the recession. The city knows how to build streetcars, and it doesn’t include a tunnel or any of the usual things that cause big cost overruns. It is very unlikely that the project will go over budget, and SDOT and Sound Transit know that. You are right that Sound Transit is not “obligated,” but I think you’re wrong about whether they “should.” This extension will increase ridership and probably federal funding as well.

      8. You never bank on being under budget until you actually build the project and end up under budget. You never spend a contingency fund until the project is complete and determine the contingency is unneeded. These are prudent project management attributes.

        ST has reputation to uphold – they can’t afford to take on undue risk that might tarnish that reputation. Tarnish ST’s reputation and ST won’t be able to pass the bigger proposals at the polls. For example, compare and contrast ST’s success at the polls with ST2 to the SMP’s success at the polls with their shortened line.

        That said, if the City is willing to bank on the fact that the project will be under budget, then so be it. Let the SCC and ST come to an agreement where ST frontloads their contribution by $750K in exchange for a reduction in total commitment of $750K.
        That way ST gets budget relief, the City gets the funds they need upfront, and the onus is on the city to insure that the project comes in under budget and/or that they can find additional funding sources.

        It works. But forcing ST to take additional risk on a what amounts to a city project does not work.

      9. lazarus, while I don’t agree that this is totally necessary, offering to reduce the total authorized amount by 750k to front-loading money for early engineering is exactly the type of cooperative thinking that I think is constructive for both the city and ST. It’s also outside-of-the-box thinking, so kudos.

      10. It’s very valuable to do the study phase for the northward extension simultaneously with the study phase for the rest; it saves money. It is therefore vital to find the money for the study phase *NOW*. While ST is not *obligated* to find the money, if the city is having trouble finding the money (and it is), it is in the best interests of everyone for ST to put up the study money, or at least the portion which the city cannot easily raise. After all, ST *does* actually have the cash right now and it is legally accessible. (Unfortunately I don’t think it’s allowed to *lend* it to the city).

        And the extension benefits everyone, putting more riders on Link and creating synergies and efficiencies.

      11. It’s not in the best interest of ST to contribute funding to a project that isn’t part of ST2. ST needs to resist scope creep.

        ST’s obligations are ultimately regional. This is a city project. The city needs to step up.

      12. Just something to think about–the First Hill Streetcar is an ST project rather than city because it replaces the First Hill light rail station that was eliminated. There was also going to be a station at Roy and Broadway that was eliminated for cost-saving reasons. So this extension replaces that station. Sound Transit in both cases gets to use a less expensive streetcar to achieve its original goals of getting dense areas connected to light rail. This is a regional project, pure and simple.

      13. The First Hill SC is a City project in that the City is responsible for design, construction management, and financial control. ST’s only involvement is as a funding partner with a capped contribution limit and no responsibility for cost overruns above that value.

        Having ST take on additional financial commitments for a project that is out of their management control is directly analogous to the current situation with the deep bore tunnel. The City should not be on the hook for cost overruns on a project that is managed by WSDOT. Nor should ST take on additional financial risk for a project that is managed by the City.

        But there is a way out. Renegotiate the agreement such that ST frontloads their contribution by $750K in exchange for a reduction in the funding cap of $750K. That way ST gets financial relief, the City gets the cash up front for the design phase, and the incentive to bring the project in within the budget still resides with the City.

      14. Lazarus,

        It appears that you misunderstand the nature of the request that is being proposed. While your convoluted way of saying it is difficult to follow, I believe that what the Community Council and SDOT have talked about proposing is exactly what you are pushing for. This is how I would explain it:

        ST’s contribution is capped at $132.8 million.

        That $132.8 million covers everything, design, engineering, vehicle purchase, construction, utility relocation, streetscape enhancements along the line, contingency, etc. We are proposing that ST grant the city permission to use $750,000 of that $132.8 million for preliminary engineering. We are not asking ST to increase its exposure to $133,550,000. No one has ever proposed such an idea. ST’s contribution would stay capped at $132.8 million.

        Now, what would happen if the construction of the line were to go exactly $7.8 million above SDOT’s conservative estimate of $125 million, pushing the total cost to $132.8 million without the PE for Aloha and $133,550,000 with PE? Who would pay the difference? The city would, because the city is responsibly for all cost overruns regardless of their source. ST’s contribution is capped no matter what.

        Asking ST for permission to spend money on PE effectively decreases the city’s contingency cushion by that amount. The City bears all the risk, ST bears none. The only difference is that if the project does come in under budget as everyone thinks it will, ST would “take back” $750,000 less than it would because the city spent that money on PE, but it’s all Seattle taxpayer money anyway so that is not an unreasonable request.

        The arrangement described above would not require changing one letter of the interlocal agreement. Per the agreement, the Sound Transit board would simply have to pass a resolution allowing the city to use $750,000 of the existing $132.8 million for PE with the understanding that, per the agreement, the City bears the risk if this expenditure pushes the project over budget.

      15. Tony, what’s the upside for ST? If the City agreed to reduce the maximum amount of funding for the project, ST would be reducing its risk while allowing the city to spend funding on PE.

    1. LOL…actually Brian, best it stops at John so you can walk all those calories off!

      1. I think you would have to walk all the way down to the waterfront and back to work off a Deluxe burger.

    2. Yes, Roy street will be an optimal stop location. My preference is for stops at John, Harrison/Republican (in front of QFC), Roy, and Prospect. Coming up with the optimal terminus will all be part of the design phase if we can get that money approved by Sound Transit, and will also depend on the availability of federal grants.

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