Seattle Streetcar at the current end of the line across from Occidental Park in Pioneer Square. (Photo by Doug Trumm)

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 publisher of The Urbanist. 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 in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.