Transit Reporting, Advocacy and Politics: The Center City Connector

Courtesy of SDOT

The Seattle City Council recently voted to designate a dedicated right-of-way streetcar line as the locally preferred alternative for the Central City Connector. This step allows SDOT to pursue federal funds for the project’s construction. Nick Licata stood in lone opposition to the project, essentially arguing that the money could be better spent on improved bus service. In the days since the vote, some transit advocates have come out against the project for the same reasons.

There are many reasons to support streetcar lines, which are summarized nicely by Scott Bonjukian. As many transit activists are quick to point out, like any transit, there are drawbacks in terms of flexibility, interaction with car traffic, and capital costs. Many of those concerns are debatable, and others are alleviated by the kind of dedicated right-of-way project proposed for the Central City Connector. More importantly, the technical concerns are vastly outweighed by the ridership potential that streetcars present.

The limitations to transit infrastructure investment are not financial–they are political. Politics, not funding concerns, led Nick Licata to vote against the Central City Connector in favor of studying more buses. When an elected official says that there is no money to pay for a project, they really mean they don’t think the political will exists to pay for it. They must be told over and over again that we want more and better public transportation. The way to ensure that we continue to build the transit that our city needs is to make more transit advocates who will vote against politicians who stand in the way of infrastructure. The best way to make more transit advocates is to make more transit riders. And more people will ride streetcars.

It is certainly the case that massive improvements could be made to our bus network with $110 million but this is a red herring. The fact is that the potential $75 million in federal funding wouldn’t be won for bus service improvements. Additionally, the $26 million from a local improvement district, or the nearly $130 million from Sound Transit already spent on streetcar projects wouldn’t have passed the political hurdles if they were used for improved bus service.

Transit advocates can continue to look this gift horse in the mouth or we can consider the fact that the city is seriously considering building eighteen blocks of dedicated transit right-of-way through downtown, take a deep breath, and realize that we are winning. When the CCC starts operating, it will carry 20-30 thousand riders a day, many of whom will be new transit users. The political difference that kind of ridership can make in a city the size of Seattle is enormous. In this case, all we need to do is learn how to take “yes” for answer.

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Yes, as I ride the Metro buses downtown, I notice that the big problem is how vacant they are, if only we had a more attractive mode of transit to encourage higher ridership.

Or we could much more quickly put in twice as many buses that run twice as often.

But that wouldn’t satisfy the rail enthusiasts – the important thing is to indulge them, not to improve transit.


No, you can’t just magically double the number of buses downtown and expect an effect like a streetcar provides. It doesn’t scale that simply. People like BRT because it’s cheap. Not because its good, effective, expands ridership, or any other measure. But it is cheap.


And what is that effect that the streetcar provides exactly?
And where as it been demonstrated so far in Seattle?


If you want to say that the ridership studies, studies of attitudes of non-riders on various modes, etc. that were done in other cities aren’t applicable because we’re special, then you’re not going to find many examples in Seattle. Given that we have no dedicated right of way streetcar, that’s kind of a silly bar to ask to have met – “prove that this thing that’s never been done in Seattle has worked in Seattle.”

The effect is that current non-riders become riders on modes of transit that appeal to them. And buses don’t appeal to them. Particularly in a city center. The rep of buses in the central city is poor. It just is. No amount of scaling up buses will change that, and by choosing buses you’re admitting defeat on turning a large portion non-riders into riders.

And again, all of this because the thing several people care about most is making it cheap. Not necessarily good, or appealing to non-riders, or even more efficient (given that we’re allergic to the idea of closing car lanes for exclusive bus use). Just cheap.

Robert Cruickshank

Well said! Nice job putting this in perspective.