Seattle Streetcar (Image: SDOT)

At a meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday, members were briefed on a forthcoming budget request to restart the Center City Connector project. If approved, $9 million will be expended in the 2019-2020 budget cycle on design of the revised project. Advancing the revised parts of the project to 30% design will allow SDOT to restart the FTA grant process in late 2020. The planned opening date is now set for 2026.

The project was placed on hold in April 2018 after Seattle Times reporting raised questions about the costs of operating the line, highlighting a dispute between SDOT and Metro about labor costs that was not surfaced to the City Council in approving the budget. An initial review quickly identified $23 million in additional capital costs. After an extended review, the most recent estimate is that the project is short $65 million for SDOT capital costs and another $23 million for utilities. A further $75 million is dependent on FTA grant funding, and therefore uncertain, but the project is understood to remain within guidelines for the expected grant.

The core segment (First & Jackson to Stewart and Westlake) is at 100% design and significant changes are not likely. The new scope identified in the independent review mostly relates to the interaction of the new vehicles with the existing network. These include modifications to platforms and tail-tracks to accommodate longer vehicles, changes to the design of the maintenance facility in South Lake Union, and bridge strengthening along South Jackson St.

Underlying much of the work are the differences in vehicles ordered for the Center City Connector. These are nine feet longer and 25,000 lbs heavier than existing streetcar vehicles. The vehicle procurement contract has been on hold since the independent review commenced in April 2018, and that stop work order expires in September. SDOT said they may terminate the contract and rebid, but appears more likely to amend the delivery schedule to fit the extended construction timeline. Compatible vehicles are no longer available, so rebidding wouldn’t resolve the design challenges of the heavier longer vehicles.

The $9 million budget request will be funded by an interfund loan to be repaid in 2020 by proceeds from the Mercer megablock sale. Current funding in the city budget is just a $500,000 placeholder for the 2019-2020 cycle as the independent review was still under way when the budget was approved.

The upcoming Council action does not yet address the larger funding gap. The $9 million will cover design work and further cost estimate refinement. The analysis could significantly shift the estimated shortfall again in either direction before the Council is faced with a definitive decision to proceed. But, as CM Mike O’Brien pointed out, approving $9 million in design work adds to the already considerable sunk costs in the project.

At the same meeting, SDOT reported continued ridership growth on the First Hill line, offset somewhat by weakness in South Lake Union. Cumulatively, the SLU Streetcar has shed one third of its ridership since 2013, and was down another 4% in 2018, although it gained 6% in the first quarter of 2019. The decline is ascribed to improved bus service on the corridor and decreased streetcar reliability due to congestion and construction activity. A series of operations improvements are underway to reverse the decline in reliability as on-time performance has sunk below 40% in South Lake Union.

First Hill, on the other hand, was up 31% in 2018, and is up 23% YoY in the first quarter of 2019. First Hill is now approaching 70% of total streetcar ridership (4,100 daily riders vs 1,500 in SLU). SDOT anticipates over 18,000 riders on the combined system when the Connector opens in 2026.

The Sustainability and Transportation Committee is expected to take up the legislation this Tuesday.

15 Replies to “SDOT makes budget request for streetcar design rework: Connector may open in 2026”

  1. This keeps the project alive — but the Federal grant part of it may kill it in 2-4 years. We will likely have several ST3-driven additional funding requests in by then, like West Seattle and Ballard line modifications, three infill stations and IDC station mitigations — on top of RapidRide and other improvements. The City’s transit priorities will be a challenge to get everything funded by a long-frugal FTA attitude.

    1. Makes electing a Democrat with the Green New Deal and massive infrastructure investment as a real priority even more important.

      1. Those are funded in ST3. The only “additional funding” would be to possibly accelerate them. 130th might be accelerated anyway if ST decides to build it with Lynnwood Link (which would cost less than retrofitting it).

  2. Al, I wouldn’t want completion pinned to a calendar decade, let alone day, but I think Seattle’s streetcar program will eventually be finished, because its real mission is so important to the area it serves.

    The purpose, and strength, of a streetcar is to make a day’s visit to its service area smooth, relaxed, and enjoyable. Functionally, a stress-free steel-wheeled walking pace through the very parts of Seattle that earn the city its Downtown living.

    The way I’d describe the advantage of a streetcar over a bus is that the ride is much smoother and steadier- the car is truly a moving sidewalk. With windows providing more spacious views of things to enjoy seeing. And buying. Wouldn’t be surprised to see a “spur” come back to the Waterfront.

    Anthony, you’re right about need and priority, but don’t forget how much, like its own existence, our transit system owes to a Republican named James R. Ellis. Or the progress Republicans in blue uniforms brought to the 19th century American South before they were massacred by resurgent Democrats in hoods and sheets.

    Wikipedia says Elizabeth Warren used to be a Republican. Maybe she can return her party to its days when slavers and secessionists were more scared of Republicans than they were of socialists.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Well, she stopped being a Republican because her own policy positions changed, not because of the changes in the party, so I don’t think she has much chance of dragging the Republicans back to caring about public transit. (Specifically, as an academic economist, she was doing research into why individuals go bankrupt. As a conservative, she expected to find that bankrupt people were a bunch of lying moochers. She found that that wasn’t true; instead, she found predatory lending and deliberate exploitation by the financial industry. Pretty shocking: a person who looked at the evidence, found it didn’t fit her preconceptions, and therefore changed her view!)


        Alex, this is why for the next three generations or so, US high school graduation requirements should worry a lot less about calculus and demand a lot more history.

        There was a time when Republicans in blue uniforms used the firearms lawfully issued to them by the Union Army to scatter slavers and secessionists, not bothering to drag them. in circumstances where possession required intensive training by seasoned combat-seasoned 19th century veterans of revolution in Germany.

        Maybe there’s a chance Bernie Sanders could channel this guy: . Always liked his allegiance declaration. “My country right or wrong. If right to be kept right, if wrong to be set right.”

        Also, This officer openly declared himself a socialist. In his own day. likely thousands of Republicans shared his doctrine, cause, and combat record. Elizabeth Warren? Nothing to lose by asking her to help re-start a miserably stalled national history.

        Mark Dublin

  3. Durkan clearly has been a failure on transportation. She has needlessly stalled the CCC, gone into full retreat mode on bike lanes, and turned 35th N.E. into a speedway that could be better described as a deathway. Meanwhile all the safety metrics for pedestrians and vehicles have turned around and are now heading in the wrong direction.

    She will leave office with nothing to show for her 4 years.

    1. Define “stalled”? Mayor Durkan correctly identified that the project was half-baked and there would not have been enough money to finish had it gotten fully underway.

      1. Stalled: stop or cause to stop making progress.
        “his career had stalled, hers taken off”
        synonyms: obstruct, impede, interfere with, hinder, hamper, block, interrupt, hold up, hold back, stand in the way of, etc.

        “Half baked?” Hardly.

        Mayor Durkan inherited a high priority project that was near shovel ready and had the Feds onboard with $75m in funding. Instead of moving forward while addressing the cost issues (like every other project has to do), she decided to stall and hope the project would just go away. It hasn’t, and it won’t. The project is just too important.

        Mayor Durkan’s record on transportation speaks for itself. It is not just the CCC, or the Broadway SC improvements, or bike lanes, or 35th N.E., or the safety metrics. It is a near universal failure.

      2. Have there been any road projects which already broke ground–street torn up–and have Fed grants ready to go, that also got delayed by *six years* because of unanticipated costs of under $100M?

      3. The project is just too important.

        Seriously? Do you really think that if a bus ran on First Avenue (with BAT lanes) that anyone would care about the streetcar? Look at the numbers above — all their estimates have been off. People aren’t in love with the streetcar, they just treat it like a regular bus. The problem is, it isn’t a very good bus (it can’t avoid obstacles). I love this line in particular:

        The decline is ascribed to improved bus service on the corridor and decreased streetcar reliability due to congestion…

        That isn’t going to change. We keep adding better and better bus service, while the streetcar is still stuck with a terrible route (when it isn’t stuck in traffic).

        What is essential is a transit mall downtown. The cheapest would be have two contraflow lanes on Third, and two on Fourth. This would have all of the advantages of center running transit (24 hour transit-only lanes) with none of the disadvantages (special vehicles, special stops, awkward access, inability to pass, etc.).

        First Avenue just needs a little paint and a reroute or two. That would be much cheaper, and better for the riders (since any bus reroute would avoid the stupid routing of the proposed streetcar).

    2. I live in NE Seattle and drive on 35th Ave NE almost on a daily basis and I can tell you it is not a speedway and you barely drive the 25 mph speed limit. If that is your definition of a speedway then your definition of a speedway is a heck of lot different then mine.

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