Urban Politics #269: $600 Million for a 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.

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On Monday the City Council could go down the same path that they are going down with the Mercer Corridor Project, i.e. they could signal their willingness to spend hundreds of millions on a project for which there is no money and for results that are at best unknown and most likely will show a degradation in service.

I am referring to the votes to be taken regarding a streetcar network. A resolution sponsored by Jan Drago supports a streetcar network, the other, sponsored by Councilmember Rasmussen and myself, states that the information the Council have received does not justify moving forward.

On Tuesday December 2 the Council’s Transportation Committee voted 4-2 in favor of Resolution 31091 in support of developing a streetcar network. Councilmember McIver and I voted no, while Drago, Clark, Godden and Burgess voted yes.  Councilmembers Conlin and Harrell were not present and will be voting this Monday at the Full Council meeting.

This resolution identifies four routes, and prioritizes the “Central” and “First Hill” lines. The Central line would run down 1st Avenue from the Chinatown/International District to lower Queen Anne, while the First Hill line would connect First Hill to light rail stations in Chinatown/ID and Capitol Hill. The other two lines would go from Downtown to the University District via Eastlake and from Downtown to Ballard via Fremont.

The Sound Transit ballot measure that passed in November included $120 million for the City of Seattle to build the First Hill line, plus operating costs up to a specified limit.

I am co-sponsoring along with Councilmember Rasmussen Resolution 31101 that states that the Council believes the information provided by the Executive “does not justify moving forward with endorsing a future streetcar network at this time,” with the exception of the First Hill/Capitol Hill line, in order to accommodate and address ridership for light rail.

The essence of this resolution is that we simply don’t have enough information yet to move forward with a streetcar network. My key goal is providing cost-effective improvements to Seattle’s transit network. The information provided doesn’t meet that threshold.

PREVIOUS COUNCIL LEGISLATION

In February the Council unanimously passed Resolution 31042 and Ordinance 122627 that approved a streetcar network concept, listing potential routes for further study, outlining a Council review process to determine the feasibility of a streetcar network, and approving a work program for determining for studying the viability.

I supported this legislation because it included a provision I requested listing the task of showing how a streetcar network would provide measurable progress toward achieving the Urban Village Transit Network goals for service between Urban Villages. In plain English this means showing that a streetcar network would increase the level of transit
service in the City.

This is a concern I had that resulted from the operations plan with King County Metro for the South Lake Union Streetcar. Under this plan, the City received roughly 11,000 hours of SLU Streetcar operations, whereas the City would have received roughly 16,500 hours of bus service, due to the increased operations cost of streetcars.  I want to be sure any
future streetcar operations agreement doesn’t leave Seattle transit riders with fewer overall hours of service.

Another provisions in the February legislation not provided included one that Councilmember Rasmussen introduced calling for a comparative assessment of funding for the streetcar network with similar funding for Metro and/or Sound Transit, economic cost and funding feasibility, network integration and transit connectivity, and ridership potential.

STREETCAR NETWORK REPORT

The Streetcar Network Development Report addressed some of these questions. The total cost estimate for the four lines was listed as $685 million capital costs, and $22 million operating costs. No clear capital funding plan was provided (although $120 million was included for the First Hill line in the Sound Transit ballot measure).

One model for funding streetcars is to create a Local Improvement District (LID) which taxes the property owners along the route of a streetcar. This method was used to finance about half of the construction costs of the South Lake Union streetcar. If the same level of property owners’ contribution is used for the other streetcar lines, then the costs could be significant. Initial estimates from the report put the cost at about $9,000 per $300,000 of property value along the streetcar line that would go through Eastlake to the University District. The other lines are estimated to be lower however.

In addition, the report noted-based on information provided by Metro-that a potential operations plan with Metro could require cuts to Routes 1 and 2 in Queen Anne, or Routes 17 and 18 in Ballard. As a result many riders who now enjoy taking a single bus from Queen Anne or Ballard to downtown would have to transfer to a streetcar from the bus to complete that journey.

The report raised more questions regarding a streetcar networks ability to be cost-effective or improve local transit service, than it answered. Those questions are not unanswerable that is why the Council had outlined what specific information it needed to resolve them. That information should be available both to the Council and the public before we set up the expectation that we will build a $600 million streetcar network. Good decisions should be based on knowledge not on desires.

To now adopt a resolution saying that the City supports a city wide streetcar network is at least premature if not irresponsible. A clear, compelling case has not been made to justify endorsing a streetcar network.

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