Yesterday, Mayor Durkan suspended almost all work on the Center City Connector (CCC) Streetcar that would join the First Hill and South Lake Union lines using dedicated lanes on First Avenue. The trigger was a jump in the cost estimate from $177m to over $200m, partly due to estimation “errors” and partly because costs for all construction projects are skyrocketing in the current economy. This is a setback for Downtown and its people-carrying capacity, obviously, but there are too many unknowns to really understand the long-range implications.
- What is the impact on FTA funding? Seattle expected a total of $75m from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for this project, and canceling it would forfeit this money. If this affects FTA awards for other transit projects like Madison BRT, as streetcar boosters warn, then it will be one of the more disastrous decisions in Seattle’s transportation history.
- Is this a pause or a cancellation? The Deputy Mayor’s language clearly describes a mere pause to get a handle on costs by the June 19th project review. However, advocates on both sides reasonably see this as a prelude to killing it altogether. If it is just a short delay, this might have salutary effects. Construction would have coincided with the city’s period of maximum constraint, where the viaduct comes down, Convention Place Station closes, and so on. Although CCC will be an efficient way to move people in the long run, a slip short enough to stay on the FTA’s good side might allow Seattle to stagger the impact of multiple projects.
- Where does the money go? Transit-oriented streetcar opponents mostly argue that the same amount of money would achieve much better outcomes if spent on buses. This is a great test of that hypothesis. There is now an extra $100m, minus the continuing utility work and costs to exercise contract cancellation options, in the transportation account. Can it go to more bus hours, which is hard to do with Metro’s capacity limits and leaves no legacy after it’s spent? Could we build more rapid bus corridors? Do the currently planned bus corridors need more money because of escalating costs? Or will the money be siphoned off to tackle homelessness, provide tax relief, or do something else unrelated to transit?
- What would have paid for the overruns? If the streetcar never opens, we will never get the answer to this. But the $23m shortfall would have been filled from something, and this is the converse question to #3.
- How will we move through downtown? A lot of Seattle’s job and residential growth is happening in greater downtown. ST3, when built out, will provide the capacity to move about 36,000 people per hour* through the two tunnel lines. That’s a colossal number of people — but it may not even absorb the growth in jobs in that area over the next few decades. Third Avenue is near its bus capacity. Although One Center City may yet piece together some right of way, the CCC’s dedicated chunk of First Avenue would have been very useful for moving people efficiently. Redistributing resources to bus routes that go further into the neighborhoods has its merits, but doesn’t solve the problem of the city’s most important bottleneck.
* assuming 60 trains per hour and 600 people per train on the five approaches to downtown.