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.