What’s changed since then is the city’s fiscal situation, already dicey last spring and continuing to deteriorate. Meanwhile, this is thinly sourced, but I’m hearing the cost obstacles to even a half-hearted line to West Seattle continue to mount. Furthermore, my more reliable sources tell me that city officials that discussed federal New Starts options with Sen. Patty Murray were told flatly that any such money was going to go (sensibly, in my view) to Sound Transit 2, rather than any sort of city project.
However, there are rail projects that cover many Westside neighborhoods and are still affordable, affordable enough to fall under the federal “Small Starts” program. Obviously, rail projects fall on a continuum between streetcars mixed with traffic and light rail that isn’t. Traffic separation can be achieved with money, as when Sound Transit rebuilt MLK to preserve auto right-of-way, or with political will, overcoming local interests to repurpose on-street parking or lanes of traffic.
I’m of course talking about the Ballard/Fremont streetcar, last seen in the city’s May 2008 report. At a midpoint capital cost of $155m — much smaller than the future seawall measure, for instance — and 26 months of construction time, the SDOT report projects 10 minute headways all day, 15 minutes at other times, 16 minutes from the Commons to Westlake, a net annual operating savings of $1.1m, and 2.2-2.7m annual riders.*
It’s appropriate to treat preliminary study numbers with a bit of skepticism. Ridership may very well be lower if the rest of the network isn’t built out, and costs will escalate as mitigation claims come in. Moreover, there are numerous mobility-enhancing extras, like an extra ship canal crossing, that would cost tens of millions more.
For all we know, the Transit Master Plan may actually suggest an affordable path to building full-blown light rail from Ballard to West Seattle. If that doesn’t occur, a souped-up Ballard streetcar would be a dramatic improvement for one quadrant of the city, return many benefits of full light rail, and fall well within the available resource limits. Combined with some transit, bike, and ped projects for the rest of Seattle, and sufficient political will to make sure Ballard rail is fast, this is something Seattle can do and will vote for.
* By comparison, Central Link had about 7m riders in 2010.