Seattle streetcar in Pioneer Square. (Doug Trumm)

We asked Seattle City Council candidates to fill out a questionnaire before meeting with The Urbanist Election Board as we decided which candidate to endorse in each race. We have posted features on candidates’ responses on a few key questions: affordable housing strategies, Vision Zero, and evictions/displacement. As the Seattle City Council takes up the issue today of funding continued work on the Center City Connector streetcar, we also want to review candidates’ answers to our question on the topic. The Center City streetcar project would connect the two existing lines–the First Hill Streetcar and the South Lake Union Streetcar–on dedicated transit lanes on First Avenue, creating a unified line that would carry a projected 20,000 daily riders almost immediately.

We asked: “Do you support the construction of the Center City Connector streetcar and why/why not?” Here’s what candidates said, starting with incumbent Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who is the streetcar’s biggest critic on the city council. Note that Herbold’s claim that “Academic Research shows that streetcars function principally to assist economic development” is not supported, as The Urbanist has noted by presenting the counterexample of Budapest–not to mention a number of other cities where streetcars (such as Toronto and Berlin) are central to the transit network. More coverage of the streetcar here.

We’d also note that while Councilmember Herbold ascribed to fiscal conservatism in her response, she was singing a different tune in the next question on adding additional tunneling in Sound Transit 3. Councilmember Herbold has been supportive of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on adding a tunnel for West Seattle light rail, which serves primarily an aesthetic purpose rather than a operational and technical transit purpose.

You can click on each candidate’s name to get a PDF of each candidate’s entire questionnaire. Ballots must be postmarked by August 6th, no postage necessary. Our primary endorsements are available here.

Lisa Herbold (District 1)

No. The question I consider with a potential Center City Streetcar is whether it is a cost-effective use of our limited transportation resources, and whether it would contribute to the long-term success of our transit network. In contrast to developing light rail, and extending our bus network, which are critical to the long-term success of our local and regional transit network, I don’t think the Center City Streetcar is a wise investment.

The original transportation purpose of the South Lake Union Streetcar and the First Hill Streetcar were to connect those neighborhoods to our regional light rail system, and they are serving that function. The line in First Hill was built in lieu of a light rail station in First Hill.

The continued cost increases (now 2x the 2015 estimate) have raised the construction cost to $286 million, leaving a funding gap of $65 million, with $75 million federal funding not yet fully secured (in fact we found out in the Q1 2019 capital project update that the funding would likely need to be reauthorized by Congress), $45 million of the existing funding plan involves bonds funded through the commercial parking tax, which could be used for other transportation improvements.

Operations cost estimates have risen sharply, from an estimated $16 million in 2017 to $28 million—a 75% increase in 2 years—this has the potential to cost additional millions every year, which would require a significant subsidy that would leave less funding available for other transportation needs.

Additional funds for construction and operations have not been identified. With the Move Levy reset, multi-modal corridors and bike/pedestrian work have shortfalls compared to projections for move levy spending. Additional spending on a Center City Streetcar would reduce our ability to make good on multimodal and bike/pedestrian projects.

Academic Research shows that streetcars function principally to assist economic development; it’s difficult to claim economic development is needed in the heart of downtown. Transportation funds should be used for transportation purposes.

I’ve heard significant opposition to a Center City Streetcar—unlike for example, expansion of the bus network, and widespread support for light rail. Ensuring passage of a Seattle Transportation Benefit District ballot measure in 2020 is critical, and an expensive Center City Streetcar project that reduces our ability to fund other projects could make passage of a bus service ballot measure more difficult, especially if the measure is, for example, countywide (a similar measure failed in 2014).

The concept of transit “redundancy” is often referenced as a reason to support the Center City Streetcar. That concept has failed to provide outcomes in South Lake Union. Ridership on the C Line, by contrast, has dramatically increased with additional investments while ridership on the South Lake Union Streetcar has simultaneously decreased.

In my work on the Regional Transit Committee, and through review of the King County Metro 2018 system evaluation, I’ve seen that additional service is needed to meet KC Metro’s service guidelines (which SDOT uses as well). In District 1 alone, the C Line, 21, 37, 50, 56, 60, 125, 131 and 132 all show as needing additional service, including buses in South Park and Delridge. A Center City Streetcar won’t help us meet those targets, but additional bus service will.

Also, when the City Council adopted the Move Seattle levy in 2015, they included a provision requiring a Race and Social Justice analysis for the use of any levy proceeds to build or operate streetcars, unlike for other modes.

Tammy Morales (District 2)

I’ll admit to being skeptical of this project. Ridership seems low and the poor planning and budgeting of the past feeds a narrative about local government being ineffective. I hope that it serves low-income communities by allowing better access through the city and that it helps reduce car traffic through downtown.

Christopher Peguero (District 2)

Absolutely. We must continue to invest and build all public transit options. We need to incentivise public transit use with robust and inexpensive options to single occupancy use. Single vehicle use accounts for 36% of Seattle’s carbon output—so there are positive impacts to meeting the city’s climate reduction goals in building more public transit options. We also must understand unintended impacts as we build those projects so ask communities benefit from the public asset.

Phyllis Porter (District 2)

I support the construction of the Center City Connecter streetcar. There’s $75 million of federal funding at risk and it fulfills the commitment made to First Hill for removing their Link Light Rail System.

Kshama Sawant (District 3)

Yes, I support the Center City Connector Streetcar. However, while streetcars can play an important role in mass transit infrastructure, electric buses and light rail are generally more energy efficient and effective.

It would be a mistake at this point to forgo the federal grant to build the Center City Connector. However, former Mayor Ed Murray and Senator Patty Murray applied for that grant without consulting Council or the public, which is a problem. They should have applied for grants that would serve more transit users.

Logan Bowers (District 3)

Yes. It appears that the capital cost per daily boarding is very reasonable. More importantly, it provides one of the best and only ADA-friendly forms of transport in downtown. Street cars are roll-on/roll-off for wheelchair users and do not require the use of elevators of questionable reliability to access. Having at least one line through downtown that is ADA-friendly is very reasonable.

Zachary DeWolf (District 3)

I do. I utilize the Streetcar to get to and from work often and we need to have diverse modalities and transportation options. Having a fully connected streetcar would be extremely meaningful to reducing congestion and addressing the climate crisis, for example.

Shaun Scott (District 4)

I support the construction of the Center City Connector because redundancies in transit are a good thing. In my home neighborhood of Eastlake, I have access to both bus and (nearby) streetcar service. On any given day, having those options will make me more likely to walk and explore the city on foot, knowing that I have a multitude of options to return home. Residents throughout the city—not just in comparatively wellheeled neighborhoods in the north end—should have similar options. I have included the funding of the Center City Connector in my campaigns’ Seattle Green New Deal package.

Cathy Tuttle (District 4)

Yes. A streetcar loop from downtown, through the I-district, to Capitol Hill, and South Lake Union makes sense. If it were a frequent and reliable loop line, it would be well-used and climate-friendly. I would like to visit South Lake Union businesses, hat in hand, to discuss their contributions to this line.

Emily Myers (District 4)

Yes. To start, we’ve received significant federal grant money to complete this project and if we abandon it, it will damage our ability to receive future grant funding for at minimum any transportation projects, but likely sully the reputation of the city for all infrastructure grants. Second, as we see in any incomplete network—the completion of the Center City Connector is necessary for it to achieve its ridership goals. It will only be a well-used network when people can get between the high population centers (both live and work) of SLU, Capitol Hill, and Downtown.

Joshua Newman (District 4)

Absolutely. Fixed rail infrastructure provides significantly higher capacity than general buses, and because of its permanence and predictable route, it attracts greater private investments nearby. The real comes from connecting the South Lake Union and Capitol Hill Streetcars. The network effects of this will dramatically reshape transportation in Seattle.

Debora Juarez (District 5)

I can neither support nor oppose this project at this time because I do not have enough information. The Mayor’s office and SDOT are working on this and bringing more information to the City Council. I look forward to learning more.

Melissa Hall (District 6)

Yes because this link makes the other streetcar lines work better.

Heidi Wills (District 6)

I am glad that the City is moving forward with the Central City Connector. We need to have a long-range vision to move not only the people of today, but the people of tomorrow and those numbers are growing beyond expectations.

The streetcar is projected to have huge ridership, moving 22,000 people per day. This is more than any bus line of Metro’s. In fact, Metro’s busiest bus line is in my district, the E-line, which moves 16,000 people per day. The City Connector would make the whole trolley system more functional by connecting two disjointed lines. Yes, it’s over budget and that is deeply troubling. But most of the costs are already sunk. Utility work on the rail line has already occurred and is a substantial part of that budget, not to mention the design and engineering costs have already been paid. $75 million dollars in federal grants cannot be used for another purpose if the project is canceled.

The streetcar is a convenient and affordable means of public transportation. Extending the line through downtown will benefit underserved and low-income communities in Belltown, Pioneer Square, and Chinatown-International District neighborhoods which have large amounts of subsidized and dense housing. And the Center City Connector will ease the burden on buses that run along Third Ave. This is important because a DSA study showed that not only is Third Ave the most congested street for buses in Seattle, it is the busiest bus street of all comparable cities, carrying a substantially larger amount of buses compared to Vancouver, Denver, and Minneapolis, cities with downtowns of a similar size to ours.

It would benefit our economy. The Port is opening up a new cruise terminal in 2022, just south of Colman Dock and close to the streetcar line. Tourists who get off at the cruise terminal would then have expanded access to the city, generating more economic activity for downtown. This generates more tax revenue for the City’s general fund.

Jay Fathi (District 6)

Yes. The Center City Connector will provide a great transit option through downtown and a much needed alternative to the 3rd Ave transit corridor. It will activate the South Lake Union and First Hill segments; it is projected to quadruple the current combined ridership of those two lines, providing 5-6 million rides annually. It will serve neighborhoods that are dense, diverse, and growing. It will help generate additional tourist revenue for Seattle, carrying cruise ship passengers from Terminal 46 to the shops, restaurants, and hotels along and around 1st Ave. It’s also scalable; it could be extended in the future to serve other rapidly growing areas north and south of downtown.

Michael George (District 7)

I support the construction of the Center City Connecter streetcar. We’ve already built two ends, so it doesn’t make sense not to connect them. Connecting the two ends by bus would force two transfers to ride the line from end to end. There’s also $75 million of federal funding at risk and it fulfills the commitment made to First HIll for removing there Link Light Rail System. Having said that, I do understand people’s cost concerns given the other transit projects also lacking funding, so I will keep an eye on cost going forward.

Andrew Lewis (District 7)

I have not supported the Center City Connector. I think it is a redundant transportation service through a corridor that is already well served by transit, and future planned transit. I think, generally, that street cars offer little that far cheaper trolley buses can offer, which are also zero emitting and currently relied on by 20% of Seattle commuters. We spent $178 million to replace our entire trolleybus fleet for the entire city. The Center City Connector will serve a single mile of transit for tens of millions more.

That said, I think we spend too much time re-litigating transportation policy decisions in Seattle. I fully acknowledge that the decision has been made after several studies, delays, and debates to build the Center City Connector. I respect that process and the decision, and I will not seek to relitigate the Center City Connector if I am elected to the city council. I will make sure the process continues to be transparent and will work to make sure it is effectively and efficiently implemented.

Jim Pugel (District 7)

I support expanding public transit, but the streetcar is expensive and over budget and I fear that if we continue to run millions of dollars over projected costs, we will lose the trust of taxpayers who are already becoming more and more reluctant to approve property tax-based levies and increased funding for transportation projects. If the partnership between the people and our government erodes, we will lose any opportunity to expand our public transit system.

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The Urbanist was founded in 2014 to examine and influence urban policies. We believe cities provide unique opportunities for addressing many of the most challenging social, environmental, and economic problems. We serve as a resource for promoting urbanism, increasing political participation, and improving the places we live. The Elections Committee consists of various staff members of The Urbanist and is a standing body representing the political values of our organization.