Urban Politics #199: SLU Streetcar and Your Bus Service

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.


SLU Streetcar And Your Bus Service
SLU Streetcar Vote
On Tuesday (6/14/05), the City Council voted CB 115292 out of the Transportation Committee by a vote of 5 to 2 (Licata & Steinbrueck dissenting), which authorizes the Executive to proceed with the construction and operation of the Mayor’s proposed South Lake Union (SLU) Streetcar. It will go to a Full Council vote on June 27th.
As directed by Ordinance 121565, passed unanimously by the City Council last August, the Mayor’s proposed capital funding plan for streetcar construction costs did not include the use of City General Funds except for $5.4 million in proceeds from the sale of City property in SLU and to pay for the City’s share of the Local Improvement District (LID) assessment. However, if project costs increase or if there are unexpected project cost overruns, or the expected $8.7 million in outstanding grants or other revenue sources do not materialize, and these costs exceed the $3.9 million that has been set aside as a contingency, it is not clear who would be responsible for covering any resulting gap between capital expenditures and revenues. 

Paying For The Construction Costs

In an attempt to minimize the financial risk to the City, CM Rasumussen introduced an amendment that CM’s Della, Licata and Steinbrueck helped craft The amendment, which was approved 7-0, clarified that Council will not determine the amount of the LID until after a maximum allowable construction contract for the streetcar is signed. At that point in time, project costs estimates should be more certain. If project costs increase above the current estimate, Council could decide to pass on the additional costs to the LID.
While at the end of the day, I’m not convinced (unfortunately) that there will be the political will to pass any additional costs on to the LID, this amendment ensures that the Council will not make a final determination on the amount of the LID until there is greater certainty about project costs. Thus, while the City will not be insulated from all financial risks on the capital side, I believe this legislation includes sufficient contingencies and options to address any potential capital shortfalls.
Paying For The Operations Costs
The Mayor’s operations and maintenance funding plan for the streetcar is a different story. According to the Mayor’s proposed plan, which the Transportation Committee approved in C.B. 115292, King County Metro will operate the SLU Streetcar but the City will be responsible for 100% of the SLU Streetcar’s O&M costs until either Sound Transit LINK Light Rail begins operations (estimated to occur in mid-2009) or the Seattle Monorail project begins operations (estimated to occur in 2010). When this occurs, Metro will become responsible for 75% of the SLU Streetcar’s O&M costs. Based on projected O&M costs for the SLU streetcar (assuming 15 -hour days and 15-minute headways) the Executive projects that Metro will need to dedicate over 9,000 Metro transit hours to pay for 75% of the SLU Streetcar’s O&M costs.
I am willing to support the City developing funding sources to pay for the streetcar’s O&M costs for the first two years of operations-but only using funds that are specifically devised to pay for the streetcar and that would not otherwise exist. That is, the proposed revenue sources-fare box revenues, bulk ticket sales, and station and streetcar sponsorships, are not revenue sources that currently provide funds to the City’s General Fund. C.B. 115292 restricts funding to these sources. However, I do not support the City of Seattle and King County Metro brokering a deal, which would be outside of Metro’s usual six-year transit planning process, to allocate bus hours to pay for the SLU streetcar.
A Poor City Deal With Metro
Without understanding what the other transit needs in the City are and without a process for evaluating competing priorities for Metro transit hours, I think it is premature to commit Metro bus hours now towards the streetcar’s O&M costs. If we do this, it could actually result in poorer transit service in other parts of the city.
Let me explain how this could happen. Seattle’s bus service is provided by King County Metro. Each transit sub area in the County (East, South, and Seattle/North King County) receives a certain number of new “transit hours” over a six-year planning period. The current planning period began in 2002 and extends until the end of 2007. During this time period, the Seattle/North King County sub area will only have received 18,000 additional transit hours. The cost to operate a bus per hour, including overhead, is approximately $98.
So when we talk about using 9,000 transit hours for the SLU Streetcar, we are talking about over $882,000 that Metro could otherwise spend on additional bus service elsewhere in the City and we are talking about the equivalent of 50% of the new, incremental Metro bus hours that Seattle received between 2002- 2007.
The Mayor says that the hours for the streetcar will not come from any new, future hours that Seattle may be entitled to but rather, the hours will come from the bus service that can be eliminated when either LINK Light Rail or the Seattle Monorail Project begin operations. Metro has estimated that it could have up to 28,000 “redeployable” transit hours once LINK comes on and 30,000 redeployable hours once the Seattle Monorail Project starts operating. However, these are rough estimates calculated a few years ago and there is no certainty that there will be this many redeployable hours available.
Assuming, however, that these estimates are correct, the number of hours that would be redirected to the SLU Streetcar, instead of to feeder lines into LINK or the Monorail, represents 33% of the hours freed up by LINK and 31% of the hours freed up by the Monorail. Such an allocation to just 1 mile of track (and with very low initial ridership) is far out of proportion to the rest of the transit system, which comprises over 400 miles.
Your Bus Service Will Be Impacted
If the Full Council adopts this legislation as it currently reads, then businesses, residents and employees dependent on transit service in other parts of the city, such as Ballard, Aurora Avenue, Lake City, Fremont, Rainier Valley, Delridge, and the Central Area, will have a reduced opportunity for additional bus service because of the shift in transit dollars to the SLU Streetcar.
One of my main principles is that city resources should be distributed fairly across the city, so that no neighborhood or community receives special treatment. We should all be standing in the same line. This legislation violates that principle.
The Solution
To correct this problem I offered a simple and very reasonable amendment that would give direction to the Mayor when he drafts an agreement with Metro (referred to as an interlocal agreement) for the allocation of future Metro Service hours.
“Because the actual number of redeployable Metro transit hours that could be available when either the Sound Transit LINK light rail or Seattle Monorail Project begin operations is unknown, and because other transit lines with greater ridership than the SLU Streetcar may be a higher priority for Metro’s transit service hours within Seattle, the City Council will need to evaluate any allocation of Metro transit hours to pay for the SLU Streetcar’s Operation and Maintenance costs that are proposed in the draft interlocal agreement. Therefore, the interlocal agreement shall not include any firm commitments to pay for the SLU Streetcar with Metro transit service hours until there is sufficient information to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of such allocation against other competing transit priorities in Seattle neighborhoods.”
This amendment simply asks the Council to provide a level playing field when evaluating the allocation of Metro Service hours across the city. Don’t weight the importance of the SLU Streetcar as greater than bus service to other neighborhoods. Evaluate each transit route using the same criteria as the rest of the system and base it on ridership needs.
What is the problem with this approach? There is none, unless the subsidy for the SLU streetcar is so great that it cannot compete with the bus services needed by citizens in other parts of the city. But if that is the case, then the SLU community, which will benefit most directly from the streetcar, should pay for the O&M costs through a Business Improvement Area (BIA). This is the approach that other cities have taken, such as Tampa, which also has a streetcar and was identified by the Mayor’s consultant as a good model to compare with Seattle’s streetcar. In addition, since we are only tapping ~30-35% of the special benefits that SLU property owners will experience via an increase in their property values (the property owners are proposing to pay only $25 million towards the capital costs while their special benefits could be as much as $80 million), there is definitely “room” to charge the property owners more, especially considering that the SLU Streetcar is more a development amenity as opposed to a effective and efficient method of transportation.
You Can Make A Difference!
Unless the Council adopts my amendment, I will not support the current SLU Streetcar ordinance, because the bus service needs in other neighborhoods will not be given adequate consideration for future growth in service.
If you agree with me, then you can do something about it. Call City Council’s main line phone number 684-8888 and leave a message:
“I support the Licata Amendment to the Streetcar ordinance. Please do not endanger my neighborhood’s future bus service.”
You can also call the Mayor’s office at 684-4000 and leave the same message, because the Mayor is opposing it and if he changes his mind then the Council will go along with his decision.
Or if you wish, send an email to the Council Members’s email addresses listed below with the same message. The Mayor does not have an email address.
With your support we can have a SLU Streetcar, but one that will take its proper place in line for public dollar subsidies.
Thank you for your consideration of this proposal.

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