The Seattle City Council is considering the city’s 2018 budget this week, and may consider an amendment to remove funding for the Center City Connector streetcar. A key procedural deadline is on Thursday. At a Select Budget Committee meeting Monday, several members voiced skepticism about the project.
The CCC connects the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars with a frequent connection in exclusive right of way through central Seattle. It is anticipated to carry over 8,000,000 annual riders when it opens in 2020. The capital cost is $177 million, inclusive of utility work. Of this, $75 million is covered by an FTA Small Starts grant, $25 million of which is to be appropriated in the FY 2018 budget. (Another $8 million is federally funded via the PSRC). The Council authorized SDOT to accept the grants in July. The CCC is in final design with the first utility work scheduled this month.
Proposals to amend the budget must be introduced by Thursday at 2pm, and the support of three members is required. An amendment could prevent Seattle issuing bonds to cover its portion of the project costs. In Monday’s session, Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, and Kirsten Harris-Talley all appeared to likely to support amending the budget. The budget will be finalized over the course of several meetings in November with a final vote on November 20.
Criticism of the project focused on the risk of federal funding falling short, doubts about ridership projections, and SDOT contingency planning for funding risks. Council members also questioned the race and social justice implications of a downtown transit project over buses serving disadvantaged neighborhoods. But the discussion was also a replay of the decision to build the streetcar. For instance, Lisa Herbold:
“The streetcar, from my perspective, has limited utility as a transportation infrastructure tool for people to get to and from their workplace. It may have value as an economic development tool.  One of the performance measures  is increasing access to transit service and we really need to be evaluating our investments in how we are helping people get to and from their daily obligations.“
CM Harris-Talley asked whether the city should redirect spending to buses. Should spending be on “routes that only serve key parts of the city, instead of investing more into our buses which allow us flexibility.  In a city that is growing quite quickly, we don’t know where all the centers are going to be.”
CM Rob Johnson warned of the consequences of stepping back from a project with generous federal support. The federal grants would be repayable, and there would be downstream impacts to the city’s ability to capture federal resources for other projects.
CM Sawant cautioned not to support the project on the basis of the federal assistance, pointing approvingly to a 1971 ballot where Seattle voters rejected a federally funded urban renewal project that would have replaced Pike Place Market.
CM Johnson also pointed to the central role of the streetcar in the 2020s regional network.
“When light rail opens to Northgate and then beyond … that’s going to have a major rippling effect on our regional bus networks. Many of those bus networks that currently serve portions of downtown may only serve the northern portion or the southern portion. That connectivity piece as those bus services are rerouted and redistributed all throughout the region is going to leave us with a gap in services, particularly for those bus routes that are running to and through downtown. Finding a place for folks to be able to easily understand how to get from one part of downtown to another is justifiably part of the ridership model.”
Another concern raised by Herbold is whether Sound Transit will continue its annual $5 million contribution to streetcar operating costs. Originally tied to the First Hill Streetcar, that contribution is guaranteed through 2023, but no agreement exists thereafter. SDOT anticipates renewal of the funding agreement, but critics point to the absence of dedicated funding in the ST3 measure. In Herbold’s view, SDOT has not sufficiently planned for the risk Seattle might need to fill this gap. But the funding issue would arise anyway because Sound Transit would need to decide whether to support the stand-alone First Hill line.
The usefulness of streetcar projects vary widely. Some cities, motivated by hopes of economic development, have created poorly functioning streetcars. The worst operate on short poorly-designed routes in mixed traffic at low frequencies. Nick Licata draws parallels with these projects to disparage the CCC as “only a downtown circulator”.
There is little resemblance to the CCC. With a much-needed exclusive right-of-way for transit through the densest parts of the city, it offers five-minute headways through the downtown core and the International District and deep into South Lake Union. Seattle’s increasingly extended core is large enough that intra-downtown mobility is critical even for riders arriving from elsewhere in the city. Modeled ridership projections appropriately reflect existing activity on the corridor. A moderate 3% annual growth rate indicates the estimates do not rely on speculation about future development.
Herbold’s concerns – that the streetcar might be more an economic development tool than a transit project – seem misplaced, and based on inapt extrapolations from other cities. Added ridership is mostly within downtown, or between downtown and South Lake Union. The CCC will easily outperform its predecessors because it serves such a critical set of destinations. As a direct consequence, it will yield much higher fare recovery than the existing lines.