Mayor Durkan Wants More Alternatives to Streetcar Studied, Delaying Budget Review

Center City Connector rendering. (City of Seattle)

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s outside budget review of the Center City Connector streetcar project is ten days past due.

The consultant KMPG delivered a draft of the report on June 7th, ahead of the June 19th deadline, David Gutman reported in The Seattle Times. Mayor Durkan, however, asked for more information, specifically about other options to serve the transit corridor. “Stephanie Formas, a Durkan spokeswoman, said that KPMG verbally briefed the mayor last week and that she asked for more analysis and ‘more detailed information for additional alternatives for providing transit connections moving forward,’” Gutman wrote.

The mayor’s statement worried some transit advocates.

Our mayor at best does not take transit seriously, at worst is openly hostile to it. These delays risk a $75 million federal grant. It’s irresponsible,” Robert Cruickshank tweeted.

Part of the agony over the streetcar decision stems from the limitations of the other First Avenue transit options. And just what are these other options Mayor Durkan is mulling?

The obvious choice is bus service. However, many obstacles stand in the way of converting the connector to a bus project. For starters, the bus option would lose $75 million in federal grants. With federal transportation grants mainly going to Red states under the current administration, now is not a good time to be a Blue state at the back of the line for grants. Connecting two disconnected streetcar stub-lines has real value that a bus line cannot easily replicate. Only by decommissioning the other two streetcar lines could one create a single efficient rapid bus line. Short of that, the city would only create a messy patchwork where bus service sutures together the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines but does not correct a situation where streetcar ridership continues to lag. It would also continue the pattern of short-changing First Hill.

And if the bus alternative is supposed be on par with the quality planned for the center city streetcar, it will likely cost nearly as much as a streetcar, though with less covered by federal grants. Center-running transit-only lanes require redesigning the street and purchasing new buses with doors on both sides. For comparison, look to Madison Street’s RapidRide G Line project which is budgeted at $120 million for 2.5 miles. Recreating Seattle’s planned streetcar loop as a rapid bus line may end up costing more than $200 million if RapidRide G’s costs are indicative. The Center City Connector is a 1.2-mile extension to bring the streetcar network to five miles in length. At twice the length of the $120 million RapidRide G Line, a five-mile-long center city bus rapid transit line would not be cheap.

The Durkan administration could also just do a bare minimum mediocre bus line. However, the Center City Connector is expected to take the streetcar to 20,000 daily riders in its first year and 35,000 by 2040. Those projections are a testament to serious demand along the route, and another slow bus is not going to get the job done. Ridership demand on that scale can’t be solved away by some new innovation.

Another issue is the delay itself is racking up costs. The consultant firm pocketed $416,000 for the yet-to-be-released review. The Seattle Department of Transportation estimated the delay will add $10 million to $14 million to the budget, largely due to cost escalation in contracting. Utility work continues in the Pioneer Square section of First Avenue as the fate of the streetcar is decided.

In a brilliant bit of timing, Mayor Durkan’s pause and reassess move came right as the president initiated a global trade war that has jacked up the price of steel.

SDOT Estimates Cost of Delaying Streetcar Project at More Than $10 Million

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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The obvious choice is bus service. However, many obstacles stand in the way of converting the connector to a bus project. For starters, the bus option would lose $75 million in federal grants.

That assumes that money could not be moved into a BRT project. Providence Rhode Island did exactly that (

Secondly, why does everyone just treat money from the federal government as if it was free? That seems horribly unpatriotic. Why should someone in another part of the country pay for a project that is horribly flawed — so flawed that the strongest argument for it is that someone in another part of the country will pay for it. I’m OK — in fact I would be thrilled — to pay for a worthy transit project in Iowa, but why should someone in Iowa pay for an obvious stinker like the CCC?

Connecting two disconnected streetcar stub-lines has real value that a bus line cannot easily replicate.Only by decommissioning the other two streetcar lines could one create a single efficient rapid bus line.

Nonsense. You simply run the buses somewhere else. Holy smoke, it should be obvious to everyone that the final route of the streetcar will be horrible. To quote Jarret Walker (

All other things being equal, long, straight routes perform better than short, squiggly and looping ones. The reasons are obvious to most transit riders …

The final streetcar line would not only be short, squiggly and looping. It would also be flawed because little can be done to make it reliable or fast for the First Hill section. This means the promised headways (itself not impressive) would simply not be met. A train heading northbound from Jackson would set out just fine (since that is where it would start). A second train is supposed to go by the same spot five minutes later, but since it would inevitably be delayed (as it is now) it could arrive five minutes late, meaning you would have the two streetcars running ten minutes apart, but bunched together. A lot of people on First would simply walk over to Third, knowing that buses there arrive within seconds.

Short of that, the city would only create a messy patchwork where bus service sutures together the the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines but does not correct a situation where streetcar ridership continues to lag.

First of all, who cares if streetcar ridership continues to lag. The city should be in the business of encouraging transit trips, not favoring one poorly chosen, poorly designed mode. If bus ridership increases (because the trips on it are more useful) but streetcar ridership goes down, who cares?

Again, you are assuming that these two streetcar routes are ideal transit routes for mating. That is just ridiculous. If these two were bus routes, you would never prioritize the linking of them. No one would say “Hey, let’s tie together those two routes, to form a short, squiggly and looping route”.

There are dozens of good options for a line on First Avenue, assuming we use (outside) BAT lanes, instead of the more expensive center running lanes. But if we decided to spend extra money (although not as much as a streetcar) then we could still run buses in the center lanes. The buses that we are going to buy for RapidRide G will have dual sided boarding, so it could run in the center of the street. (Side note: Those buses also carry just as many passengers as the streetcar, and thus have every advantage of our streetcars, without any of the disadvantages). Speaking of which, center running buses have a clear advantage over center running streetcars, when someone “blocks the box” (i. e. sticks out a few inches into the transit only lane). When that happens to a streetcar, the vehicle is stuck. When that happens to a bus, the bus easily moves around it, by moving into the oncoming bus only lane.

With center running buses, there are fewer options, but still a bunch that are better than the terrible streetcar route. Just about any RapidRide route, existing or proposed ( would work. My favorite would be to tie together the 7 and 70. I could also see the C or the 40 (but not both) sent down First (one would complement the other in terms of coverage). The E is another option, as is the D. The latter already runs on First for a very short segment, which means that if it just stayed there, it would run a lot faster. That is four, maybe five bus lines, all traveling in center, bus only lanes, which would mean frequency *on First Avenue* would be much higher, while improving speed and reliability for those lines. Someone on First would not be tempted to walk to Third — as they would see a stream of fast moving buses, all with off-board payment and level boarding.

What I find especially odd about the enthusiasm about the streetcar is that it will do nothing to address the big bus problem we will soon encounter as the transit tunnel closes to buses. In fact it would make it worse. With increased bus ridership (which shows no signs of slowing down) as well as lots and lots of buses downtown, we have nowhere to run them. Third gets too crowded, and it would be great to use another street — with bus lanes — to run those buses.

I find the whole thing bizarre. At the same time we are saying we have too many buses running through downtown and need a way out of the problem, we are then proposing running *an additional bus* through downtown, but only downtown. Except it isn’t a bus, it is a streetcar (as if that matters).

It would also continue the pattern of short-changing First Hill.

This will do nothing for First Hill. This will not increase the headways for First Hill, nor will it enable a bunch of new trips. Look at that transit map, and just look at the alternatives now, let alone if we actually build a better grid for the area. I can’t find trips to First Hill that make sense with the streetcar from any of the proposed track. Maybe you are seeing something I’m not — and if so, please correct me. Please tell which trips actually make sense, or would be significantly faster with the streetcar.

As for improving transit to First Hill, as with First Avenue, there are a bunch of options. The first is to actually connect First Hill with South Lake Union (something the streetcar expansion does in theory, but not in practice). A bus on Boren, from at least Jackson to Fairview would be a great start. Extend it out at least to the Hutch to the north, and Mount Baker station to the south (connecting to Judkins Park station in a few years). A bus like that would be much more popular than any part of the streetcar, because it would fit well within the grid, and make sense for a lot more trips. When the RapidRide G comes on board, I would also like to see a north-south line run on 12th. This again would likely end at Mount Baker in the south and provide more of a grid for what is, essentially, part of downtown. There are other options as well, such as simply increasing frequency on many of the buses. It is pretty easy to think of things that would improve the transit options for First Hill more than the streetcar, because the streetcar will do so little for First Hill.

It all just doesn’t add up, as I’ve said before:


Buses on Boren! Buses on Boren!!


The attitude SDOT has promoted on the federal money is that not only would we “lose” the money, the government would never give us more ever again if we cancelled a project and turned some down. Which is a weird idea. To me, the thing that would get is into the never again category is if it became known we’d rather waste it than “lose” it.

Preston Sahabu

Streetcars only make sense when mixing exclusive transit ROW with pedestrian malls. In every other use case, buses are superior.

If we made the entire stretch of the streetcar lines into linear parks, closing off minor intersections and instituting MLK-style signal priority at major intersections, then the streetcar would be more reliable and pedestrians would be able to claim more space. But that’s politically and logistically difficult, especially with the center-running lanes on major traffic arteries, so it’s unclear if there is a future with a healthy streetcar.

Richard Bullington

Everybody needs to remember that everyone was ecstatic when the 15 and 18 were moved off of First Avenue. If you lived in West Seattle or Ballard and worked downtown in the financial district, you got off at the stop between Madison and Marion and faced a very steep hike up a hill about 200 feet high, in your work clothes. Not to mention that backbone transit should not be subject to the pedestrian chaos of the blocks north of Pike on First Avenue. If you do this cockamamie scheme of moving the C, D, 40 or 120 to First Avenue you will have people marching with torches and pitchforks.

First Avenue is perfect for an urban circulator because it has “attractions” every couple of blocks, but with the exception of the Federal Building, they’re not workplaces to which people travel daily. Pedestrians feel much more comfortable being close to streetcars because they know that they simply don’t “jump the track” and plow through crowds as buses sometimes do.

Do NOT move any Rapid Ride route to First Avenue.


The whole point of the City Center Connector was to tie together two existing short and borderline-useless streetcar lines and making a functional whole out of them. The only way to do that is with streetcars that can operate from Lake Union to Capitol Hill. It’s the ONLY way to make those streetcars useful and productive.

If the mayor elects to cancel the City Center project, then she should also eliminate the existing streetcar lines. Sell the equipment to Portland or wherever and pave over the tracks. Then the City should convert the overhead wires for trolleybus operations, and operate trolleybuses over the Lake Union to Capitol Hill line.

Enough with these short, fragmented shuttle lines. Tie the service together so more people can ride. If not streetcars, then trolleybuses.


At some point we should look at selling off the old streetcar. But it is silly to think that somehow connecting the two streetcars would magically make the two lines wonderful. The First Hill line is severely flawed, and the South Lake Union line doesn’t go very far. Connecting them does little to make typical trips faster.

Just consider the First Hill part of the line. You can choose whatever map you want to follow along, but I prefer this one: OK, I’ll move north to south. From South Lake Union to First Hill, it would be silly to go all the way around — you are better off working your way down to the 8 (until Metro or the city adds an all day bus for Boren). From Pike, you are better off taking the 10/11 or 49. From Madison, you will be better off taking the new RapidRide G. From James, taking the 3 or 4 makes more sense. From Yesler, the 27 is more direct. That pretty much covers it.

There is not a single case where taking the streetcar “round the horn” makes sense. That is because the streetcar line would not be a line. It would be a tight ‘U’, with a dogleg just to make things interesting. For much of the way, you could get off the train, walk down the hill, and then catch the very same train. The only spot where the distance between the two north-south sections is fairly wide is on Madison, which will soon have a bus that is faster, more frequent and more reliable than the streetcar could ever be. Connecting a very small, somewhat redundant South Lake Union line with an extremely flawed First Hill line to form a near loop is not going to suddenly make the streetcars experiment a success.


A tied-together streetcar line, Lake Union to Broadway, would be an urban circulator, not a line-haul transit route. Yes, it would be great for tourists as it ties together nearly all of the major tourist destinations in the city center.

No, the connector line is no magic pill, no silver bullet to make streetcars “wonderful” as you suggest. But it would make something more useful out of early bad ideas. Sometimes you do need to throw good money after bad.


The CCC should have been designed to be shared with standard fleet buses and had a shared center lane transitway with floating stops allowing for right door boarding. It was malpractice and incompetence that it wasnt designed this way. It would have had greater benefits and utility than just serving streetcar and have made more efficient use of this infrastructure where transit lanes downtown are already at capacity and in need of more space for buses through downtown.


My suspicion is that canceling the streetcar is fait accompli at this point, and Durkan is just looking for political cover by promising some extra bus service through downtown.

There are a lot of problems with the ccc, mainly that the two lines it plugs together are quite bad, and this won’t fix that problem.

However, I think replacing it with bus service is basically impossible because we don’t have anywhere to store the buses. The best thing about the streetcar is that it comes with garages for the streetcars and isn’t dependent on our already full bus bays.

I think we could turn our streetcar system into something good… but it would require rebuilding then already built lines to be grade separated like they should have been in the first place. Ultimately, we might be better off putting the money towards more light rail subways.


Sure… If you believe those ridership numbers. But where are all the residents and workers who would ride from First Hill down on the streetcar when there are BETTER and faster bus connections, or from Pioneer Square around to SLU when there are BETTER and faster bus connections? If the ridership is to be be believed it sounds like much of that would be tourists (not unlike the old streecar). While that is a valuable thing to support, should that be coming from precious transportation dollars that could fund other projects?

Mike Carr

Why aren’t they supporting the streetcar and riding it instead of taking the bus like everyone else? Looks like the city got scammed and there are much fewer supporters of the streetcars than previously reported.

Doug Trumm

Now you’re just making stuff up, Micky Mouse. The dedicated center-running transit lanes on First Avenue will be significantly faster than buses using Third or another avenue, and that’s before the tunnel closes to buses and jams up Third even more. Adding First Avenue as a transit corridor also spreads out our Downtown network and saves some people a steep walk up the hill to Third. For mobility-challenged folks this is huge, and it’s also nice for people who would simply rather not slog up a ~20% grade hill if they don’t have to. If your trip starts and ends on First Avenue there’s simply no way walking up to Third Avenue and back down again is faster of “BETTER.” This isn’t just for tourists.

Scrapping the project you start by flushing $75 million in federal grants down the drain and you still have to pay tens of millions for the utility work that is on-going and not-paused. In sum, you could salvage only a fraction of the $200M or so budget and doing so would jeopardize every project in line for federal money. Very big risk. Very small reward.


I’m not “making anything up.” Many folks from Pill Hill don’t take the streetcar up from light rail, they get off at University Street and walk up, for example. If someone’s trip starts and ends on First Avenue, that’s all the MORE reason they could be served by a bus.

There’s no requirement to have a streetcar in order to have a dedicated lane to run in.

Streetcars are great solutions — where they provide better and faster transit options. We should not waste precious transit dollars on them for promoting tourism or encouraging development. That money can come from elsewhere. And we DEFINITELY shouldn’t waste precious budget dollars on them when they risk cannibalizing bus hours — as the SLUT originally did when it first began.


It probably would have been worth mentioning that projected ridership, and attendant cost recovery through fares, has been the subject of some skepticism in city hall and elsewhere.

I’m surprised that the bicyclists in the crowd here don’t have more to say about rail death traps in the roads. I’ve been able to survive a couple of trips over them, on Westlake, but I have to be pretty careful, and I’m an old guy who’s been riding for a long time. Others have not been so fortunate ( – plus the more well known case who couldn’t write to the Times about it because she’s dead.)


Rail in the street can be dangerous, but it’s gotta be less dangerous per bike-mile than cars. The fewer cars on the street, and the more dedicated non-car lanes for bikes to use, the better.


Per bike mile? Dedicated non-car lanes for bikes to use? What? I support more of each mode, but suggesting that the street car tracks complement the bike network is not true. They essentially compete for the same corridors. And, in most cases, the car lane reductions required to install one usually exclude the other.


>> Rail in the street can be dangerous, but it’s gotta be less dangerous per bike-mile than cars. The fewer cars on the street, and the more dedicated non-car lanes for bikes to use, the better.

Right, but the streetcar does nothing to get cars off of the street. That is the problem. It is just another hazard for bikers. This is a common way for bikes to crash over the rails. A rider is focused on the cars, one of the drivers makes a mistake, a rider swerves to avoid the car, hits the rail at the wrong angle (or the wrong day, when the tracks are wet and extremely slick) and boom, down goes the biker.

This is a problem in Toronto as well. So it isn’t just a question of education, or experience (as studies have shown — It is not a problem in Amsterdam, as they keep everything separate. But to do that takes a lot of extra space and money ( Money that Seattle has been unwilling to spend making the streets safer, and space that Seattle has been unwilling to set aside to improve safety.

Of course none of that is required if there are no tracks, and a bus is running on the street instead.


I was in amsterdam last week, and they have crazy amount of cyclists and tons of tram tracks, yet I didn’t see people getting stuck in the tracks.

I suspect the problem is that in seattle we aren’t used to them, so people get bikes with narrow tires and ride across the tracks at extreme angles without thinking about it.

I also wonder if our streetcar tracks aren’t a bit thicker guage or something… it seemed like it wasn’t possible to get my bike stuck in the tram tracks.


Exactly, bikes and streetcars coexist just fine in Amsterdam. The problem isnt streetcar tracks, its the couple dozen cyclists in all of seattle that dont know how to operate their bike despite the city blowing millions on unused bike paths.

Doug Trumm

Where are these unused bike paths you’re talking about? Bicycling is up 37% on Second Avenue, for example.


No one rides bikes in Seattle. Percent increases are meaningless when the count is so low.

Andres Salomon

BS. “operator error” is a cop-out. Look at these streetcar tracks, and tell me how you’re supposed to safely bike over this.


I’d probably try it, rather than back up and find a way around, and I’d probably make it OK. You just need to keep a steady path that doesn’t drop your front rim into the crevice. But if I did it every day, or if 365 bicyclists did it once each, there would be crashes and injuries. Elsewhere the cycling world is celebrating less competent riders, aren’t we? Pick up your rental bicycle on a whim, maybe electric if you aren’t sure you can manage on leg power. Don’t worry about a helmet … But if you die on the tracks? whatever! that’s one less bike rider with no common sense!

Andres Salomon

Also, when daily commuters and bike racers (in other words, people who clearly know how to operate their bikes) are getting hurt on the tracks, I don’t see how you can possibly blame user error. The tracks are at fault.


Failure to use common sense is the fault of the rider. I lived in Portland, I rode a bike there daily (a city actually suited to bikes) you use caution around tracks, even bikeshare riders in Seattle know this. Im so sick of the whining about tracks. Its the spandex warrior crowd that sleeps at night with their bike and lectures everyone how the bicycle will cure all the worlds problems that ignore tracks… Some ideological ‘how dare a section of street not be solely designed for bikes’ regardless of a directly adjacent dedicated bike lane.


As Andres said below, that is just B. S. Imagine this scenario: You are biking along, cognizant of both the cars around you, and the slippery tracks next to you. An oblivious driver suddenly changes lanes, without as much of a signal. You have two choices: Slam into the car, or make invasive maneuvers. You choose the latter, and that means cutting an an acute angle over the tracks. You try your best to jump them properly, and adjust to the jolt of your bike suddenly thrown to the side but you go down. You lay there, in horrible pain, hoping you didn’t break anything and that other drivers are smart enough to not drive over you.

All of this could have been avoided if the isolated the tram lines (as they do in Amsterdam) or if they simply didn’t have any.

Stephen Fesler

I would point out all over The Netherlands (e.g., Rotterdam, Den Haag, Utrecht, and Zoetermeer), Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, and even Ireland—and they’re building more. Bike crashes are fairly rare in most cases.

Amsterdam’s track gauge is 1422mm, ours is 1435mm. Basically indistinguishable.

My observation is basically bike equipment, street design (e.g., track placement, bike lanes or lack there of, surfaces, and crossing approaches), and bike riding styles that are the key differences. But any way to improve crossings for people biking should be done and focusing on awareness of safe bike practices around tracks. SDOT, I believe, tossed away the idea of flanges in the past.


The worst case is where the bicycle’s path is near parallel with the tracks, not crossings. I mean, I don’t have any numbers, but it’s safe as can be to ride square across, or even at a fairly acute angle under good conditions. As you approach parallel is when the track can grab your wheel. That’s assuming that you’re taking a fairly straight line – if you’re turning, then the loss of traction when you cross the steel track could be a problem.

The latter case is a design failure in my opinion, on bike paths where SDOT has striped out very tight turns for track crossing. But whatever, the fact that they’ve done that is a testament to how much we can get out of “awareness of safe bike practices around tracks”: nothing. If the tracks are a hazard unless you have that awareness, then people will be crashing. They’re a hazard, not to mention expensive and unnecessary.

Stephen Fesler

I was being fairly brief with the key issues, but yes, forcing/encouraging people to ride bikes on or immediately adjacent (parallel) to tracks is hugely problematic. This is especially the case when there is not consequential separation, ideally physical separation to preempt swerving into a trackbed, which obviously can catch the tyre of a person biking. Other scenarios, of course, can arise with more perpendicular crossings due to street designs that encourage unsafe 90-degree or less perpendicular crossings (primarily complicated intersection junctions, often with wide streets and intersections and odd lane paths) that can result in less than ideal situations. At the very least, street channelizations, bike route markings, and in-street separation devices can help lead to safer crossing situations.

These aren’t unsolvable and expensive problems (frankly, what’s good for people biking is good for streetcars and the overall transportation network):,4.4808991,3a,75y,337.88h,73.15t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1slE4WC23386Ed8Gl3D7pJ1g!2e0!!7i13312!8i6656,4.4796551,3a,60y,78.1h,74.26t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1symlJOAj4xAcuhrMw3Y0OHQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656,4.3240828,3a,75y,124.99h,64.83t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sEdiq8Bt6i5nZQ5-u2wzT7A!2e0!7i13312!8i6656,5.1040158,3a,60y,90.01h,78.73t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sm-rtbu1PviG14G8pNjg7fg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656


Yep. As the studies have shown, it really isn’t ignorance of the tracks, or how to cross them. It is common for a rail related accident to involve a vehicle (a biker swerves to avoid a car, then falls over the tracks instead). The problem is unsafe design.


Yeah the difference is in the Netherlands cyclists aren’t riding in between the tram lines like I used to on Westlake. Every car/tram route has a separate dedicated bike route.


Amsterdam isolates each mode, in the way that airports keep planes and cars separate. Doing that in Seattle would be expensive, and in many cases would be very difficult. To isolate each mode, you need a lot of space, and if you don’t have the space, you would be stuck banning one of the modes (e. g. banning cars from Stewart).