Councilmember Herbold has proposed shelving the Center City Connector streetcar project once again and diverting $2.4 million in funding to Citywide hiring incentives.

The Seattle City Council released its consent package of amendments yesterday with 205 amendments included in four voting groups and will hold a final public hearing today before the final vote on the 2022 City Budget on Monday. The second voting group includes an amendment from Councilmember Lisa Herbold that diverts $2.4 million in Center City Connector streetcar funding to instead fund $2 million in Citywide hiring incentives and $400,000 to assist Seattle Public Schools (SPS) “in acquiring bus routing software and Global Positioning System-enabled tablets for school district buses.”

Councilmember Herbold has previously stated she would only support Seattle Police Department (SPD) hiring incentives if other City departments struggling to fill positions also receive hiring incentives. With the streetcar amendment, Herbold seems to be clearing the way to back SPD hiring incentives.

Police hiring incentives are a top priority for Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who unsuccessfully attempted to fund them in the mid-year budget update. Durkan’s budget proposal included $1 million in SPD hiring incentives for next year. The Mayor funded SPD hiring incentives for the remainder of 2021 though an executive order issued last month. That said, Consent Package B includes a Herbold amendment curbing the Mayor’s executive order by ending her emergency powers at year’s end and capping 2021 SPD incentive expenditures at $500,000.

The streetcar amendment could be controversial from two directions. Killing the streetcar for one, and clearing the way for SPD hiring incentives for two. The streetcar debate was already prefaced during transportation budget deliberations.

The Center City Connector closes the key central gap in the streetcar network. (Seattle Streetcar Coalition)

The streetcar has already been killed a few times under the Durkan administration, with Councilmember Herbold consistently gunning for the project along the way. When Durkan took office, the Center City Connector streetcar project was about to break ground and expected to be completed and open for service in March 2021. Then, Mayor Durkan halted streetcar work in 2018 a few months into her tenure, citing a variety of worries. She worried the streetcar wouldn’t fit the tracks (spoiler: they fit just fine), ridership projections, and about budget overruns, though her initial delay added $10 million in costs.

The Mayor commissioned an independent review of the project, which confirmed the streetcar would have robust ridership. With the Center City Connector extending both existing streetcars, the network is projected to have about 20,000 in daily ridership — more than any bus line in the region.

Seattle Streetcar boardings after the Center City Connector is completed. (SDOT)

Councilmember Herbold has repeatedly derided the streetcar as a “shopping shuttle.” Meanwhile, Councilmember Alex Pedersen has argued it is redundant. However, a superfluous shopping shuttle wouldn’t be getting system-leading ridership projections. Moreover, it serves areas not well served by the existing transit network. The Seattle Waterfront lacks frequent transit service and Yesler Terrace and First Hill are also not well served. First Hill was promised a streetcar connection to Downtown when they accepted the First Hill Streetcar as a consolation prize for Sound Transit abandoning light rail plans to the neighborhood. Small businesses waited through lengthy streetcar construction on the promise the line would reach Downtown and Pike Place Market.

After dragging out her review, the Mayor eventually recanted and announced she supported the streetcar in January 2019 and would work to close the remaining budget shortfall. In the fall, the Mayor announced a ridehailing fee and suggested in could help fund the streetcar. The City Council allocated $9 million to update plans and tweak turnaround tracks to handle the larger vehicles planned. However, when the pandemic hit the following year, Mayor Durkan shelved the project once more as a budgetary precaution.

The Mayor’s 2022 budget proposal aimed to jumpstart the project with a bit more planning funding, which will help re-secure the grants the project had before she shelved it.

Whether the Mayor’s fifth flipflop on the streetcar survives the Council’s budget amendments remains to be seen.

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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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PorterBallz

Just my opinion here. I use the existing streetcar lines all the time. The center city connector would make the other two even more useful. Build it for the future, and build even more lines!!

B T

I think that one of the biggest sources of resistance among the general public is the obviously asinine U-shaped route that never should have made it out of the charrette phase of this project. The CCC, then, is suffused with the odor of good money thrown after bad. It’s interesting/amusing to me that streetcar proponents seem unable to acknowledge this obvious critique. There may ultimately be a compelling case to build the CCC, but I don’t think it serves proponents’ interests to act as though there weren’t serious design flaws baked into this project from the jump.

Justin

This describes my thoughts exactly. I’d love to see more rail built, but then I look at the route map and wonder if the whole this is an example of the sunk-cost fallacy.

Douglas Trumm

It’s actually two overlapping L-shaped routes. Each existing line would use the CCC and overlap there, but the SLU line wouldn’t continue on to First Hill and vice versa. I think this more of a case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, rather than a sunk cost fallacy. This project is a rounding error on the West Seattle Link and a faction of the cost of adding a WS tunnel, but the ridership projections aren’t that different.

Last edited 16 days ago by Douglas Trumm
Caleb

People make the strangest arguments against this streetcar. Yeah, obviously the current network sucks and few people ride it. But that’s because the current network leads nowhere. No one would ride the E Line either if it only ran between downtown and Queen Anne. The connector will clearly bring more ridership and take cars out of downtown. If nothing else, it’ll make getting to Pike Place, Pioneer Square, and First Hill much easier. I don’t understand the complaints or delays. I hope the council just builds the thing already.

Justin

I used to work in SLU and recently moved a couple blocks away from the First Hill streetcar. I’ve never ridden either streetcar other once for the novelty of it. It’s nearly always faster for me to walk or take a bus. I can see some utility being gained from the CCC, but I’m not convinced it’s worth the cost relative to other potential network improvements.

fromatron

if the Link Light Rail only had four stops and departed once every half hour, it would be useless too.

Justin

The First Hill streetcar has 8 stops and 10 minute frequencies. Making it longer won’t give it dedicated lanes or alter the inefficient U-shaped route. I’m not necessarily saying we shouldn’t build the CCC (I love rail!), I just have some doubts.

Sara

I mean we could just give it dedicated lanes, sounds like an easy problem to solve, all it takes is some paint and a couple signs

NoSpin

Some paint, a couple of signs… and enforcement. There are plenty of cars that block painted crosswalks, painted bike sharrows, etc.

Rail only works marginally well on truely dedicated right-of-way, and best if grade-separated. Streetcars are rail-fail guaranteed.

asdf2

I’m curious where the 20,000 daily ridership projection is coming from because the CCC does not provide actual mobility benefits that would support this? For instance, is it including existing ridership on the two streetcar lines as part of the 20,000? Is it making false assumptions about rail bias (e.g. that people will choose a 25 minute streetcar ride over a 10-15 minute bus ride, simply because the streetcar runs on rails)? Is it counting ridership that would be poached from either Link or buses on 3rd Ave., rather than just new ridership? Simply looking at the map and comparing the CCC with existing overlapping routes, such as the 40, C-line, 7, 36, etc., 20,000 new daily riders just doesn’t make sense.

There is also a paragraph in the article that is just so wrong, it deserves a sentence-by-sentence critique:

Moreover, it serves areas not well served by the existing transit network. The Seattle Waterfront lacks frequent transit service”

A streetcar on 1st does not serve the Seattle waterfront.

and Yesler Terrace and First Hill are also not well served.”

They won’t be served any better with the CCC than without the CCC, as riding the streetcar to downtown from these places would be slower and more roundabout than just riding a bus on an existing bus route. The north/south section on First Hill also section won’t run any more frequently with the CCC vs. without it.

“First Hill was promised a streetcar connection to Downtown when they accepted the First Hill Streetcar as a consolation prize for Sound Transit abandoning light rail plans to the neighborhood. Small businesses waited through lengthy streetcar construction on the promise the line would reach Downtown and Pike Place Market.”

There is already a connection between First Hill and the 3rd Ave. bus spine along existing routes, such as the 2 and 3. It is faster and more direct than riding the streetcar around. Enabling a streetcar trip that is slower than existing bus alternatives does nothing to help small businesses.

Even with federal subsidies, the cost of building the CCC is enormous, and in the scheme of greater Seattle transit, we have far bigger problems than 1st Ave. downtown. What about trips such as Lake City to Greenwood? Or Wedgwood to Ballard? Or Lake City to Bitter Lake? Or Ranier Valley to Georgetown? Even First Hill to South Lake Union, which the CCC purports to connect would be much better served by a regular old numbered bus route down Boren.

fromatron

Hey do you know what’s better than a bus? A bus on rails. The cost to build a rail network may be high, sure, but once built, they cost less to run, are environmentally friendly, carry more people, and scale better than any automobile ever could.

asdf2

That’s true for Link, but not for the streetcars. The streetcars have a passenger capacity no longer than a bus. Their environmentally friendliness is no better than a trolleybus. Their operating cost is higher than a bus. And their scalability is worse than a bus because every new mile of service requires tearing up the street to build new tracks.

RossB

No, they don’t cost less to run. They cost about the same, but a bus is more flexible. A poorly performing bus can be rerouted, to perform better. Our (trackless) trolleys are just as environmentally friendly. Our buses have the same capacity as our streetcars. Furthermore, we will never need that extra capacity.

They don’t scale better for all of those reasons. If we want service on First, we can simply send buses there. That is essentially free. We can send as many as we want, until half the buses are on Third, and half are on First. To scale to that level (which most would consider excessive) would require a massive investment in streetcars as well as extra track, so they could pass each other (or much bigger streetcars, which would require much bigger stations, which would cost a fortune).

Streetcars have their advantages. Unfortunately none of them apply to the proposed route. It is unlikely there is any route in Seattle where they are appropriate. The only corridor with enough demand already has a transit mall, (part of a spine) with as more buses running through than any city in the country. It also has a light rail line running underneath it.

Douglas Trumm

I appreciate the sentence by sentence critique. Very generous of you.

Here’s some information about the STOPS ridership modeling that the FTA uses and determines grant awards by. Basically you analyze station areas and compare transportation alternatives to estimate how many people would use the new service. https://www.transit.dot.gov/funding/grant-programs/capital-investments/stops

The 20,000 ridership estimate is the whole streetcar network after the CCC opens. The ridership map above gives you a sense of where the ridership is expected to come from. It dates from the original 2014 study rather than the 2018 review, but both arrived at similar estimates.

Buses don’t use Broadway south of Madison so there isn’t much of an alternative north of Jackson. The 60 is nice, but by taking Boren, it avoids much of the walkshed east of Broadway through this First Hill/Central Area section. It also requires a transfer for folks headed to the ID.

tacomee

It’s crazy how streetcar haters use the phrase “shopping shuttle” in a negative way. Of course it’a a shopping shuttle. All the small businesses on the route are all in on this. The City made a promise to those merchants and the City needs to quit backpedaling. Fair is fair.

RossB

The STOPS model is very crude. It is meant to provide a rough idea of the ridership of a new route. It is also critical that you enter the data properly, and there is no reason to assume they did. For example, you can define a bus route as “BRT” or just a bus. The former gets put in the same category as a streetcar. That itself should raise eyebrows, but more importantly, it is a mystery as to how they labeled the existing system. Third Avenue, for example, has off-board payment, and buses arriving every few seconds on streets reserved for buses. It is, essentially, BRT. But not a single bus would be considered BRT, because for the rest of its route, it gets stuck in traffic and/or people pay at the front. In many ways, this is the crux of the matter. Underestimate our existing transit system, and the streetcar looks like a major addition (which would then get great numbers). Recognize the value of our transit system (fast and frequent service from one end of downtown to the other) and the streetcar looks like a bad investment. If you are on Second Avenue, and your destination is on Second Avenue, there is no way you take the streetcar — you walk to Third and catch a more frequent bus. The model may not reflect that.

It is worth noting that previous estimates (using the same model) were way off. The planners have not done anything to deal with this flaw, other than reducing the number of trips on the existing line. As the report stated “No new ridership demand model was built for this report”. “A more detailed analysis involving bottom-up FTE scheduling and detailed ridership modeling will be needed to confirm range of potential efficiencies.” In other words, more modeling needs to be done — otherwise it is quite possible that this will cost a lot more to operate. Without good ridership, fare recovery will be low, and it will be costly to run.

The numbers are exaggerated, probably because they fail to recognize the high quality of the existing bus system downtown, and the fact that there is little rail preference in this town. Relatively speaking, our buses are very good. The streetcar is nothing special.

RossB

Buses don’t use Broadway south of Madison so there isn’t much of an alternative north of Jackson.

You could easily have the 49 continue on Broadway, and merge with the 60. That would cost … (hold on, let me do the numbers) … nothing. In fact it would save the agency money. You could then run a bus on Boren, from South Lake Union to Mount Baker. This could be as simple as sending the 106 there. This would cost money, but not much.

I wouldn’t get rid of the streetcar necessarily — not unless we can get good money for it. Run those cute little trains every 10 or 12 minutes, and run the 49/60 at the same frequency, opposite each other. That means 5/6 minute headways along Broadway, from John to Yesler. To provide that kind of service with the streetcars would require a lot more streetcars, and a lot more service money. It would result in a lot more of those streetcars making that ridiculous button hook.