On Monday, the Seattle City Council voted 6-1 in favor of a $9 million appropriation to continue work on the Center City Connector streetcar, with Councilmember Lisa Herbold casting the sole no vote. Councilmembers M. Lorena González and Kshama Sawant were absent. González was in Copenhagen taking urbanism classes, and Sawant walked away from the dais before the vote.

The appropriation, facilitated by an interagency loan, means that the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) will continue engineering work making design tweaks needed to finalize the revised plan and break ground on the project, as we reported last week. The biggest change is bridge strengthening on Jackson Street to accommodate the new heavier CAF Urbos streetcars that will carry up to 166 people each and thus weigh about 40% more than the older model the City uses.

Previously slated to open in mid-2020, the project has been in limbo since Mayor Jenny Durkan hit the brakes in March 2018 as construction was ramping up, citing concerns about the budget. After nine months of review, she officially backed the project in January.

The Center City Connector will unite the First Hill Streetcar and South Lake Union Streetcar Lines to create one consolidated five-mile corridor. The new timeline has the Center City Streetcar opening in 2026, but SDOT will iron out the details in the final proposal it submits to the City Council sometime in the next year or two. Presently, SDOT’s portion of the budget sits at $208 million, with the $9 million approved Monday a portion of that, and utility work (attributed to Seattle Public Utilities or Seattle City Light) adding another $77 million.

“Today’s vote is another indication of growing confidence in this project and recognition of the need for clean and efficient transit in the heart of our city,” said Emily Mannetti, spokesperson for the Seattle Streetcar Coalition. “Record levels of people are living and working in downtown and we can’t afford further delay. We applaud the Mayor and City Council for moving the streetcar forward.”

Ahead of the vote, Councilmember Herbold delivered a lengthy soliloquy assailing the streetcar as a wellspring of all manner of evil. Many of the hits should be familiar by now, and most have been discredited in this publication.

Streetcars are transit workhorses not trinkets.

Herbold Claim: Streetcars are not real transit; they’re economic development tools.

Reality: The Center City Streetcar is a highly effective transit investment projected to boost streetcar ridership 230% so that the consolidated system would carry about 20,000 daily riders, which is more than any bus line in Seattle. In short, it’s real transit. And dedicated transit lanes on First Avenue means it will be fast and reliable. While Herbold painted it as a well established fact that streetcars are economic development tools not transit, in many cities streetcars are transit workhorses, as we’ve reported. We cited the example of Budapest which has more than a million rides per day on its streetcar network. Plenty more examples are out there, including Toronto with about half a million daily boardings.

20,000+ Daily Riders

Herbold Claim: The City’s streetcar ridership projections are suspect and likely grossly exaggerated.

Reality: SDOT used the ridership model required by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which is based on fairly conservative assumptions. SDOT has yet to update the ridership projections for new 2026 target to open, meaning a nearly a decade of additional growth hasn’t been factored in. The First Hill Streetcar saw its ridership increase 31% in 2018. The numbers on the South Lake Union Streetcar aren’t good, but that line is only 1.3 miles long and is very unreliable. People seem to be walking or taking more frequent buses instead, which benefit from the same transit lanes the streetcar uses on Westlake Avenue. The Center City Connector project will fix that by making a five-mile corridor with dedicated transit lanes through Downtown Seattle and higher frequencies.

Dedicated center transit lanes will keep the Center City Connector out of traffic. (Credit: City of Seattle)

Small businesses benefit

Herbold Claim: Only undeserving big businesses would benefit. Streetcar construction would irreparably harm small businesses.

Reality: Many small businesses have joined the Seattle Streetcar Coalition and testified at council meetings that they want the streetcar project and expect it to greatly boost business. Chinatown-International District business owners have pointed out that the direct connection to Pike Place Market will make it easier to attract tourists to the area. Moreover, it was promised to Chinatown-International District and First Hill business owners and residents who accepted the disruption caused by First Hill Streetcar construction.

The Center City Connector will fill a gap in the transit network near the waterfront and serve the new cruise terminal at Pier 46. (Graphic by Paige Malott)

Still well positioned for $75 million in FTA grants

Herbold Claim: SDOT won’t be able to collect the Small Starts grant from the federal government.

Reality: Seattle already secured a Small Starts grant based on the strength of its proposal. If the delay forces the City to reapply, the case will still be very strong thanks to high ridership figures–likely even higher than before due to Seattle’s growth. If the Center City Connector cannot get a Small Start grant, virtually every transit project in the region is in jeopardy because the Center City Connector had higher ridership than any other similarly-sized project.

False scarcity

Herbold Claim: The streetcar steals from other transit projects.

Reality: Most of the streetcar budget isn’t fungible or transferable. Moreover, there’s no need for a scarcity mentality for crucial transit projects. Seattle has a plethora of transportation funding possibilities, including: the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (which has a renewal coming up soon), ridehailing fees, decongestion pricing, transportation impact fees, or the Monorail taxing authority. Of the $285 million total project budget, including utility costs, only $100 million is recoverable, SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said. Meanwhile, the West Seattle Link Extension tunneling option that Councilmember Herbold supports (it’s in her district) would cost an extra $700 million, Sound Transit says, while increasing ridership a negligible amount over elevated rail options–1,000 to 2,000 daily boardings.

High farebox recovery ratio

Herbold Claim: The streetcar needs a really big operational subsidy.

Reality: Virtually every transportation mode requires a subsidy. Roads are not free to pave and maintain. Cars externalize their costs on the environment and society through the many forms of pollution they create. The operational subsidy the streetcar is projected to require will be relatively small. King County Metro buses recover about 27% of their operational costs on average, also known as the farebox recovery ratio. Meanwhile, the streetcar already recovers operational costs at a higher rate, and the independent consultant review that Mayor Durkan requested found that, with the Center City Connector, the farebox recovery ratio increases dramatically to 52%–twice Metro’s average bus line. In fact, in upper-end ridership scenarios with good advertising deals, the streetcar may come close to covering its own operational costs. Of course, we could also make transit fare-free and pay for operations through taxes if boosting transit ridership, promoting equity, and lowering climate emissions were our primary goals.

The Center City Connector will run on First Avenue and Stewart Street. (Credit: SDOT)

What’s next

With the appropriation SDOT will get to work getting the streetcar project ready to relaunch. Once the additional engineering and design work is complete, the agency will need to bring another proposal before council to close the project’s budget shortfall, currently estimated at $65 million.

It was a busy day at Seattle City Council on Monday with the council also passing a Seattle Green New Deal resolution and overriding Mayor Durkan’s veto in order to keep the city’s sweetened beverage tax dedicated to healthy-foods programs as intended and promised by the legislation.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. One thing that’s surprisingly influenced my thinking on the streetcar is a Downtown Seattle Association graphic: the upshot of this is that we already have an unusually large number of transit vehicles running north-south through downtown without a particularly impressive number of riders. I don’t know if FTA takes that into account in its projections, but it is an area where Seattle is actually unusual.

    Why so many buses downtown? We have a lot of north-south corridors near downtown that converge on downtown. From the north, Ballard Bridge, Fremont Bridge, Aurora Bridge, I-5 Ship Canal Bridge, and University Bridge routes all run all the way through downtown on the surface; so do non-bridge routes that run mostly north-south from Queen Anne and Magnolia. From the south, routes from Rainier Ave, Beacon Ave, I-5, the South Park Bridge, Delridge Way, 35th Ave SW, and Fauntleroy Way all run through downtown on the surface. And on top of this even, some routes that mostly follow east-west corridors like 520, East Union, East Jefferson, Yesler, Jackson, and I-90 all end up on north-south corridors downtown. On many of these corridors there really is a point at which all the bus capacity is needed, but it doesn’t seem to be the middle of downtown.

    Of course once you’re on a bus heading toward downtown it doesn’t benefit you to be forced into a transfer on the edge. The big question for the streetcar is whether it can part of an overall movement toward more riders in fewer vehicles downtown. Link expansion will be a bigger part, but can the streetcar be a part? Can it take a bunch of riders from 520-Mercer routes enabled by upcoming WSDOT work, or will it not be good enough, and leave those riders still preferring direct-to-downtown service? Will we look at where the streetcar directly overlaps the C Line and 40 in SLU and say, “Maybe those routes should do something complementary?” What about the 7 on Jackson, for that matter — will the unthinkable Rainier-Boren-Fairview route actually start to look attractive? Will riders of some routes that converge on 3rd Avenue and don’t have outer-neighborhood Link transfers coming any time soon start to look at truncations favorably? The big question for me is whether the streetcar is enough to be a core route downtown, one that we organize our transit system around, not just another member of the swarm.

  2. You are misrepresenting the expected farebox recovery ratio. SDOT’s presentation to City Council on February 5, 2019, page 10 shows the updated estimated operating cost for Center City Streetcar – First Year of Operations cost is ($27.71M); Farebox Revenue is $8.5M. This is 31%, not the 52% you quote.

  3. Where are the operating hours coming from? When the SLU car line went into operation, Metro shifted service hours from city bus routes, primarily in central and SE Seattle. The issue of the writer’s “false scarcity” concerns operating expenses, not capital. We should know if *any* Seattle bus routes will get shorted in order to operate this grand new streetcar line (and it will be a single line, most emphatically not a “streetcar system.”)

    • Metro makes SDOT pay for the service hours. So that shouldn’t be an issue. Carrying 20,000 daily riders with 52% farebox recovery ratio is really good transit worth investing in no matter what technology it happens to operate on. The fact that it’s streetcar activates some biases in folks. But if it was a bus with those metrics we’d be jumping up and down to build it.

      • It’s good to know the old policy has changed, that Metro is no longer shifting streetcar service hours away from Seattle’s allocation of bus hours. Of course the dollars that Seattle will spend on streetcar hours could also have been spent purchasing more bus hours — and streetcar service hours are significantly more expensive than bus hours.

        On another matter, the exclusive transit lanes on First Ave. will not guarantee on-time performance ~ the streetcar needs to be essentially congestion-free end to end. It only takes one area of dysfunction (Lake Union end) to put the entire line off-schedule.

  4. Claim: The streetcar tracks are a known danger that seriously injure and kill cyclists, expose the city to multi-million dollar lawsuits, and are not compatible with Vision Zero.

    Reality: The streetcar tracks are a known danger that seriously injure and kill cyclists, expose the city to multi-million dollar lawsuits, and are not compatible with Vision Zero.

    • Bicyclists are used to riding down bus lanes because the signs say “bicycles ok”. The City of Seattle doesn’t want bicyclists injured so they aren’t allowed there near the tracks, and those streetcar/bus lanes do not say “bicycles ok”. The dedicated bike lanes are separated from the streetcar lane, so bicyclists need to follow traffic rules and contribute to a safe traffic environment.

      • It’s not the case that the problems caused by the existing streetcar tracks are mostly caused by cyclists riding in the “wrong” lane. There are real design problems on the existing segments. The CCC design mostly looks better to me, but the existing segments have real problems.

        1. On Westlake the streetcar runs in outside lanes. Outside lanes are where people normally ride, following normal traffic conventions; where bus lanes are on the outside we’d mostly ride there even if the signs didn’t say “Bicycles OK” (nobody actually reads all the signs — you couldn’t possibly read all the relevant signs and also pay attention to the road, which is more important). Even if we did ride in the inside lanes here we’d still have to use outside lanes to turn right and to access destinations along the street, just as people driving cars do. On Westlake the outside lane is a no-go zone due to tracks and the sidewalks don’t have extra room for people biking so those of us in the know mostly avoid the street. However if you don’t know that in advance, or if you’re making a spontaneous trip and your route is only half-planned (people do this by every mode of transportation, and do it safely by bicycle every day without incident all over the world) it’s easy to end up on Westlake without good options.

        2. Northbound, in the jog from Westlake to Terry, the tracks cut across the width of Thomas Street diagonally at a shallow angle. As Terry crosses Mercer the tracks switch from the left to the right lane. These are things you can handle if there isn’t much traffic around and you can pay attention to the tracks, but… there’s a lot of traffic a lot of the time! It would be easy to be paying attention to cars around you and miss that tracks had merged into your lane!

        3. There was a famous crash that killed a woman along Yesler a couple years ago. This segment actually has bike lanes! She apparently drifted out of her rather narrow lane on a downhill and got caught in the tracks. It may have been her mistake, but… a pretty small mistake to have such a large consequence! One of the tenets of Vision Zero is that small, routine mistakes shouldn’t have fatal consequences! On a different segment of Yesler the bike lane is sandwiched between streetcar tracks and parked cars… so if a car was to pull out in front of me and I was to react as normal, quickly checking over my left shoulder then moving left, I might end up in the tracks that way. Fortunately that segment is uphill, so everything happens slower, but it’s not comforting.

        4. One of the most appalling intersections in Seattle is at the corner of the 2nd Avenue Extension and Jackson. Cyclists continuing south from one of the most popular bike lanes in the city are dumped out into a left-turn lane… which is the left-most of a double turn lane, destined for the inside lane of Jackson, where the tracks are. As you turn onto Jackson, monitoring the position of cars to your right and planning a lane-change to the more comfortable right lane, tracks merge in under your feet. Cyclists should move one lane to the right before turning (into the middle lane, which is unusual!), and there is some indication of this by “sharrow” markings, but there’s nothing indicating the unusually large danger of staying left, and of course following “sharrow” lane guidance is secondary to obeying the overall rules and conventions of traffic. I’ve been biking for transportation since I was 12, I know exactly what’s coming, and sometimes there just isn’t a good opportunity in the flow of traffic to make a lane change, especially when, on a bike, I can’t just accelerate to the speed of traffic effortlessly.

        Of course it’s possible to crash on streetcar tracks even if you’re crossing at a right angle. If the ground is wet and you don’t know they’re coming and your weight is off-center because you’re accelerating your wheel can just slip along the track. This is easy to avoid if you know the tracks are coming but it’s easy to not notice in heavy traffic. A crash like this has occurred in Seattle! I really think part of the reason Seattle’s tracks have seen so many bike crashes is that when you’re biking in these parts of town you have so many other things to pay attention to, and you’re often under pressure from other traffic to ride fast. That’s more of a general problem with our downtown streets, but streetcar tracks amplify it.

        So even though I do think the CCC design is better than the existing segments (and the First Hill design was mostly better than the SLU design), Seattle Streetcar has a lot to prove to cyclists. I don’t blame cyclists for not wanting to see more tracks on the streets.

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