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.