The Mayor’s budget proposal funds streetcar service in 2021 at current levels, with about 10% fewer service hours than before COVID. The Seattle Council however appears to be looking at further reductions, eyeing about $700,000 in operating savings for every 10% further reduction in service. Prospects for restarting the paused Center City Connector appear dim.
Overall, the City’s streetcar operations budget for 2021 is flat vs the original enacted 2020 budget. Cost increases nearly offset the 10% reduction in service.
Pre-pandemic ridership on the First Hill streetcar had reached up to 4,000 per day, with another 1,700 on the the South Lake Union streetcar. Recent ridership on First Hill had recovered from post-pandemic lows to about 2,000 per day. South Lake Union service, suspended for most of 2020, reopened on September 19.
Council Member Alex Pedersen, casting an eye at the empty office buildings in downtown, was skeptical last week about funding current operations levels on the SLU line in particular. There were several questions from Council about how much further savings could be wrangled by reducing service. Council President Lorena González cautioned against going too far. “If the cut is too deep, we’re signaling we’re abandoning the streetcar system entirely”. González sought further analysis of where a tipping point could be, warning “particularly on two lines that have already been built, and that are existing infrastructure in our city, I worry about whether we are setting them up for future failure”.
Meanwhile, the Center City Connector remains on hold.
The Center City Connector’s long running challenges with cost overruns appeared resolved in September 2019 when the Mayor proposed a 51 cent tax on rideshare services in the city. The spending plan anticipated $56 million from the tax to cover the remaining funding gap in building the streetcar. A year later, expectations for the rideshare tax have collapsed. Far from the expected doubling of rideshare trips, those trips fell precipitously with the onset of the pandemic and are still down by about half. What remains of future rideshare tax revenues are allocated to other general fund spending.
Work was paused indefinitely on the Center City project in the 2020 budget rebalancing. It remains a listed project in the 2021-2026 CIP, but with no funding proposed in 2021 or any local transportation funding identified in later years. That leaves an unsecured funding gap of $92.8 million. Despite some concerns about federal funding, particularly the risk Seattle might have to repay money already received, there seemed little interest at last week’s Council meeting in restarting the project.
Has Council politics shifted against the Center City Connector? Beyond the challenge of finding another $93 million of capital dollars in a contentious budget cycle, the needs seem to have become less urgent, however temporarily. Intra-downtown and South Lake Union transit capacity is not stretched. Meanwhile, the Connector’s most effective proponents, Rob Johnson and Mike O’Brien, have left the Council. When the Council debated streetcar funding in 2017, several members argued against directing so much money downtown on equity grounds, and that may resonate again this year.
Seattle’s operating funding for the streetcar must grow in coming years to offset the likely loss of funding from other sources. Sound Transit’s $5 million contribution to the First Hill streetcar is scheduled to end in 2023. King County’s partnership which contributes $1.5 million annually to the South Lake Union streetcar expires in 2024. Seattle’s proposed budget allocates $5.3 million of commercial parking tax revenue. Pre-pandemic fare revenue was $1.9 million, though that fell to $750,000 in 2020. The budget anticipates a return to pre-COVID ridership by 2023, a forecast that is more optimistic than some other agencies.