Urban Politics #236: SLU Streetcar Update

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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.





On June 12, the Council’s Transportation Committee voted 4-1 (Drago, Godden, Rasmussen, Steinbrueck, v. Licata) in favor of Council Bill 115917, which provides a financing plan for the operation of the South Lake Union (SLU) streetcar, and approves an agreement with King County Metro to operate the streetcar. I cast the ‘no’ vote. The Council will likely vote on this bill at our June 25th Full Council meeting.

I did not want the City to invest millions in building a streetcar that had doubtful transportation benefits to the public (see UP issues # 199 & 200). Through constant pressure on the Council, I was able to prevent City general fund dollars from being used for construction costs. 52% of the costs are covered by landowners benefiting from the project, the rest from various grants.

The operating cost for this 1.3 mile line relies on a major public subsidy. Many public transit systems need on-going public subsidies for their operation costs. But the larger question that must be asked, and one that has not been answered in the case of the SLU Streetcar, is how does the subsidy for just one short line fit into meeting citywide transit needs?

Below I describe the project, its impact on future city-wide bus service, and how it relates to ballot measures and transit plans. After I reviewed this information I had to conclude that unless we have a clear and reasonable cap on the public subsidy going to this project, it will most likely impact our ability to fully serve all neighborhoods of a growing city. One solution may be to have those most benefiting from the trolley transit line pay for a fair share of its operating costs, so that other bus services can expand to meet growing ridership.


In November, 2006 King County voters approved a sales tax of 0.1% for the ‘Transit Now’ ballot measure to increase bus service in King County. Over the next 10 years Metro expects bus service to increase by approximately 800,000 hours. Around 600,000 of these new hours will come from Transit Now. City staff estimate Seattle will receive from 166,000 to 181,000 additional hours over the next ten years.

The ballot measure will target 10 minute frequency for routes on Aurora Avenue, and between Ballard and Downtown, and West Seattle and Downtown, and 15 minute frequency on Beacon Hill to Downtown, Queen Anne to Downtown Seattle, the University District to Downtown, Capitol Hill to Seattle Center, and Ballard to University District. The last two received new hours in February 2007. Maintaining what it calls ‘core service’ routes is included as a lower-level priority; the County’s 2002-7 plan included around two dozen in Seattle.

Despite these details the Council has not received benchmarks for tracking the progress for increasing service among the various routes. Without some time measurements, allocating additional bus hours to well lobbied projects, like the SLU Streetcar, means that the City is not allocating public resources according to a city wide plan, but rather on a basis of who has the best access to the decision makers.


The SLU Streetcar will run from Olive and Westlake to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Fairview. It is scheduled to begin operations in December 2007, with service every 15 minutes for 15 hours a day. The City will pay 100% of operating costs until Sound Transit Light Rail service begins, scheduled for September 2009. At that time, King County/Metro will pay 75% of the costs, the City of Seattle 25%. Metro’s share will be provided not in dollars per se, but in hours of bus service available to Seattle. According to Metro, they will need 16,800 yearly bus hours to operate the streetcar.

These are hours of bus service that would otherwise go to supporting other Seattle bus routes. The Mayor has argued that since the City will be receiving many more bus hours this amount is not significant. However, the SLU Streetcar will be consuming 9% to 10% of these new bus hours and I believe that is significant. The City originally estimated the cost two years ago at 9,200 hours. The operating cost has thus increased by over 80%.

The breakout of the 166,000 to 181,000 new hours is as follows: Transit Now will provide 100,000 hours, and Sound Transit’s light rail line down the Rainier Valley will free up another 36,000 hours. These hours were supposed to provide bus feeder services to the rail line but we do not know how many are needed. How can we assign hours from this source to the SLU streetcar without knowing what is needed to provide adequate bus service to Light Rail? The last source is from a special fund within the City’s Bridging the Gap program; King County allows municipalities to purchase additional hours through a competitive arrangement, consequently the total amount available is not clear.


In 2005 the City Council passed the Seattle Transportation Strategic Plan. A key strategy was the Urban Village Transit Network (UVTN), designed to provide transit service every 15 minutes or better, 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, in order to, as the Seattle Transit Plan states, ‘allow Seattle to become a move livable city where we do not need a car for mobility.’

In February 2007 the Seattle Department of Transportation issued the ‘UVTN Monitoring Project,’ which tracks how effectively the UVTN corridors are being served in five categories: frequency, the number of hours per day buses arrive every 15 minutes or better, reliability, travel speed, and passenger loading/overloading.

It’s exactly the kind of measurement we need to effectively track how well Seattle is meeting the goals of the Urban Village Transit Network, and what areas are most in need. Click here to view the report.

The report reviews the performance of 61 corridors. Some of the longer corridors were broken down into separate categories for measurement purposes, resulting in 81 total segments. Here’s how many segments meet the City’s criteria:

Frequency: under 50%
Length of time 15 minute service available: under 40% (the measurement used was 12 hours per day, not 16 as listed in the Seattle Transportation Strategic Plan: only 11 segments meet the 16 hour threshold)
Speed: over 60%
Reliability: under 30%
Load size: 50%

Only 3 corridors passed on all 5 criteria. Using the 16 hours per day threshold, none of them would have passed on all 5 criteria. Of 61 corridors, with 81 segments, none of them meet the criteria listed in the Seattle Transportation Strategic Plan.

One corridor without adequate service runs from Olive & Westlake to Fairview and Valley, to be served by the South Lake Union Streetcar. However, it is only one of many. We will be devoting 9-10% percent of our new transit hours to this one corridor; all except three blocks of this corridor are served by current bus routes 17 and 70.

The City cannot simply set up a good monitoring project; it must use it! The measurements tell me that the City has a long way to go to meet its own goals. This is where our focus should be. We cannot afford to walk away from our commitment to provide good bus service throughout the City. Our bus hours should be devoted to connect Seattle’s Urban Villages first and then applied to special projects like the SLU Streetcar.

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