Urban Politics #245: City Wide Streetcar Network

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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.


Today the Transportation Committee had a briefing from SDOT, Marni Heffron, a City hired consultant, the Streetcar Alliance and Anne Vernez Moudon, a consultant to them from the University of Washington Urban Form Lab. Both consultants produced reports. All presenters at the table were in agreement that the expansion of a Streetcar system would benefit Seattle.

The context of the meeting seemed to be that the Council has made up its mind that we are going forward with a streetcar network and it is
just a matter of choosing the best next route. While we may want to do that, we should not just assume that to be our course of action because we have not identified how to pay for the operations of such a network.

The report, done for the Urban League and the Seattle Streetcar Alliance, both proponents of expanding the streetcar system, completed
in April 2007, surveyed possible sources for funding the operations and maintenance costs. It noted that fares pick up less than 20% of those costs. The remainder is generally picked up by the operator. In this instance that would be King County, which is currently operating the SLU streetcar. But King County spends our money, not theirs for this cost. They subtract funds that would go to our bus system to pay for the streetcar and they would presumably do so for any future streetcars.

Projecting future operating costs is not simple. Originally the operating costs for the SLU streetcar was to be 9,200 bus hours (each
bus hour equals so many dollars that the City receives from King County to operate their buses in Seattle) and now the estimate is 16,800 hours, an 80% increase over two years.

The Heffron report noted that *street cars are compatible with the Seattle Transit Plan, compatible with UVTN (the Urban Village
Transit Network), and well suited to meet the goal (established within them) of *15 minutes service, 18 hours per day, seven days per
week.* What the report did not mention was that of the 61 transit corridors that serve our transit network linking urban villages, less
than 50% have bus service that meet this goal. And only 11 of the corridors provide service more than 16 hours a day. In other words, we
are not meeting our transit goals city wide.

The question that the City Council must ask SDOT, is how will the City meet those goals and how will devoting more revenue to
operating additional streetcars affect that objective? The consultant reports mention that people take streetcars
because they are more reliable than buses. That may be true. Less than 30% of our buses on our most critical transit corridors meet our
reliability goals. Shouldn’t we be addressing that problem before we pursue major capital costs of laying tracks and assuming on-going
operational costs for additional streetcars?

Here is the problem I think we must address. The Seattle Streetcar Alliance consists mostly of both property owners and community
representatives who stand to gain through increased property values or increased transit service from an addition of a streetcar line to their neighborhood. For them, the addition of streetcars is definitely a win situation.

But the vast majority of transit riders take the bus now and will in the future. Fixed rail lines like Sound Transit and streetcars do offer options, but they will not be carrying a significant percentage of transit riders. So where is the organization representing the majority of transit riders? There is none. They only have one institution to lookout for their interests and that is local government.

If we do not ask ourselves how citizens throughout Seattle will be better served by investing more public funds in creating a streetcar
network, no one else will. It is not a question easily asked given the attraction of streetcars, but it must be asked before we succumb to
their charm regardless of their cost.


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Time September 1, 2015 at 7:53 am

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