UP #354: Should we build rail on First Avenue downtown?


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This past Monday, the Council granted my request to delay voting on Resolution 31526, relating to the proposed Center City Connector (CCC) street rail project slated for First Avenue. The resolution would have both adopted the City Connector Transit Study Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) and would have endorsed efforts to pursue federal funding for the project.

After reviewing last week’s Council hearing, relevant documents, and listening to comments from community members and stakeholders, I had several serious concerns with the Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) proposal that I believe warrant further consideration.

Street rail and other forms of transit on First Avenue
One of my primary apprehensions stems from the choice of street rail on First Avenue, as opposed to other forms of transit that could be substantially cheaper despite offering comparable service.  Streetcar capital costs are substantially greater than costs for electric trolley buses, and yearly operating costs are also slightly more expensive.

In SDOT’s Transit Master Plan, the total capital cost estimate for a rapid streetcar on the Eastlake corridor was $278 million, averaging $46 million per mile. By contrast, electric trolley bus service was a mere $88 million, or $14.6 million per mile. No estimates were given comparing trolley bus service and street trail capital costs for the First Avenue Center City Connector, although the plan does estimate the total capital cost per mile for CCC rail to be $54 million.

Similarly, annual operating costs for electric trolley buses are slightly less expensive than for street rail. While there are not direct comparisons on First Avenue, yet, SDOT estimates savings of approximately 10 percent for other corridors in its Transit Master Plan. The annual operating cost per boarding ride for the Eastlake corridor, for instance, is $8.9 million for rail and $8.1 million for trolley buses. Similarly, for the Ballard corridor it is $9.1 million and $8 million, respectively.

Given the limited availability of public funding for transportation at almost every level of government, the city must consider electric trolley bus service for First Avenue or for connecting the South Lake Union and First Hill lines, so that we do not miss out on an option that can provide comparable service for a substantially reduced cost. Since there was no information presented to the Transportation Committee comparing these modes, it seems it was never adequately considered. That is why I’ve asked SDOT for more information about this option.

Questions about project funding
Likewise, there are many questions on requesting federal funds for the CCC. While the council vote would only endorse efforts to seek federal funding, SDOT has yet to decide how much it will ask from the federal government. It is possible the city could receive as much as $75 million, but that would still leave the city looking for at least $40 million to fund the street rail line.

I find it troublesome that there is no identifiable source for providing this amount or for operating the new streetcar. Ethan Melone, Rail Transit Manager for SDOT, told the City Council that there were several possible funding sources, beyond any federal funding.  Two of them – proposing funding via ballot measure and raising the commercial parking tax – are both now being considered to save Metro service in our city. It does not make sense to go back to the voters asking for more revenue from these same sources to fund a project that stretches for just over one mile downtown.

Allocation of transit resources
With limited public funds for transit, it’s also important that the City Council consider how new transit dollars needed for infrastructure are spent. In my request to delay the vote, I noted the serious concerns I had about spending significant capital in the highest transit-served neighborhood in the city, without a noticeable improvement in transit service.

Further, I am concerned about allocating transit resources to downtown when there are so many neighborhoods within this city with severely diminished bus coverage.  With the failure of Proposition 1, the April 2014 ballot measure, King County Metro intends to move forward with a 16 percent budget reduction, totaling 550,500 service hours per year across the county. While the City of Seattle is currently working to restore service on routes through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District Transit Ballot Measure, that funding is not yet secured, just as the CCC’s isn’t. In sum, I do not think the City should be considering the CCC in a vacuum, and should instead consider transit additions, reductions, and changes with a larger context in mind.

Moving forward
At this point, Councilmember Rasmussen has graciously granted a three week stay on moving forward with this legislation. I am continuing to work with SDOT and the Council to answer more questions about the project prior to moving forward with any particular design or proposal.

I will continue to provide updates as we move forward in this process. Despite the plan only calling for a mile-long track to be laid in the center of the city, the allocation of transit dollars will undoubtedly affect Seattle residents from every neighborhood.

We have already witnessed significant cuts in service to our south Seattle and south-west Seattle communities. We should consider the tradeoff we will be making by investing in new fixed rail downtown instead of reestablishing these routes that serve many lower income and middle income Seattle residents.

Keep in touch…

Comments

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Comment from Erik H
Time July 7, 2014 at 4:46 pm

This Seattleite fully supports your position. A bus can accomplish everything a streetcar can and more. I’m confused as it what a 1st Avenue streetcar is supposed to solve. Who is pushing for more streetcars?

Seattle is not a quaint little town, it is a big city with big city transit needs. A streetcar may have made sense in 1914, but it all it will do is increase the congestion on 1st Avenue.

We desperately need grade-separated speedy mass transit in Seattle. That’s even more expensive, but it would be money well spent.

Comment from Carl
Time July 8, 2014 at 9:02 am

Three comments:

1. It wouldn’t make any sense to connect the two existing streetcar lines by a bus. People won’t want to make a transfer and we already have buses on Third Ave as well as Fourth/Fifth.

2. The old canard that bus is cheaper capital cost than streetcar is almost always because a lower quality investment is made – the bus can just use the streets, we can just paint some lane markings. Those lanes then get blocked by delivery trucks, police cars, etc. And bus ride quality and reliability just isn’t the same – it’s easy to stand on a rail vehicle, not so much on a bus which sways and bumps. And reliability is higher on rail because you have multiple wide doors for boarding, so consistent dwell times.

3. What about the Benson historical streetcars on the waterfront? Please bring them back. They are both an attraction in and of themselves, and they provide circulation along the waterfront, which is a different corridor due to the height differential.

Comment from Dotty DeCoster
Time July 13, 2014 at 9:58 am

Thank you! At last, someone is looking at the whole transit picture. I don’t understand the passion for a city connector streetcar, but if we need one, why not restore the waterfront trolley as part of the waterfront effort. I did attend the central connector public workshops and it was never clear to me why it was needed and how it would be funded.

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