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Future of downtown Center City Connector streetcar uncertain

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A review ordered by the mayor’s office predicted a high cost—but a major boost to streetcar ridership

The South Lake Union streetcar.
Albert Pego/Shutterstock

The office of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) are currently weighing its options after an independent report on Center City Connector (CCC) streetcar line’s cost and ridership. Durkan initially put the project on hold back in March after initial reports that the project was facing a major budget shortfall.

The report, which was completed by auditor KPMG and was supposed to be due earlier this summer, has finally arrived—and found that project capital costs, so the cost of city scoping and construction for the line, could run between $241.9 million and $252.4 million. That’s far above the initial project estimate of just under $200 million, which includes $31 million the city has already spent, but doesn’t include current funding sources like federal grants and bonds. Don’t build the project, and the total project cost, between money already spent and the cost of closing out the project, is $55.4 million.

However, it also found that ridership on Seattle streetcars could reach 5.4 to 6.9 million a year—or 14,795 to 18,904 a day—tripling the city’s current streetcar ridership during even the current lines’ busiest days. Not only would the line run through downtown and connect the two current, unconnected lines, it would also have its own dedicated traffic lane, helping correct the slow service that has plagued the rest of the network.

It would also be the only public transportation option running west of the Third Avenue bus corridor after the demise of Metro route 99, which itself replaced a waterfront trolley line.

In the report, KPMG examined four scenarios for Seattle’s streetcar network, which includes already operational lines in South Lake Union and First Hill: either build or don’t build the CCC, and either continue current service levels or decrease service hours to only those of the highest demand.

It’s not too surprising—considering that the farebox wouldn’t recoup expenses, which is pretty much standard—that decreasing service hours could result in more revenue. But the deficit risk is pretty much the same either way. With contributions like federal grants, agency partnerships with organizations like King County Metro or Sound Transit, or sponsorships, KPMG estimates that in year five of operations, the streetcar could be anywhere from running a $2.6 million deficit to $1.9 million in revenue running the current service plan. Cutting hours could result in an estimated $2.7 million deficit or a $6.1 million surplus.

With no outside money, the debt risk is much higher (anywhere between $9.9 million and $1.2 million, depending on service levels) but again, it’s standard for a public transportation line to not pay for its operating costs with fare alone. And the streetcar project could have a higher-than-average portion of its operating cost paid for by fares—52 percent compared to King County Metro’s 27.3 percent.

While the deficit risk is about the same, ridership would suffer a little by cutting service hours: 5.4 million to 6.3 riders a year on Seattle streetcar lines compared to 5.8 million to 6.9 million.

Don’t build the Center City Connector streetcar at all, and ridership across all lines stays at close to the current baseline: 1.5 million to 1.8 million riders a year. Both current streetcar lines are currently running operating deficits of a combined $6.6 million, even with outside contributions, although the KPMG report estimates that the deficit could be essentially closed by year five, assuming outside money comes through.

Speaking of that outside money: When Durkan first halted the streetcar line, it raised questions about the feasibility of federal grant money coming through for the streetcar. Now, with an even longer delay than anticipated, the fate of that money is unclear. The project’s funding was at risk during the last city budget process—but if the streetcar wasn’t completed, City Councilor Rob Johnson argued, the city’s eligibility for federal grants now and in the future could be at risk.

This concern was echoed in a memo to City Councilor Lisa Herbold from the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations, obtained by the Seattle Times: Withdrawing support, argued the memo, could “damage the city’s credibility with the Federal Transit Administration,” potentially affecting even current projects like new Bus Rapid Transit corridors.

Johnson’s office had not returned a request for comment by press time. City Councilor Mike O’Brien, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, was not available for comment. (The Seattle City Council is currently in recess.)

Seattle has run into all sorts of problems building streetcar lines—the last line completed, the First Hill Streetcar, was plagued by its own period of uncertainty during manufacturing delays. The cars ordered for the CCC may be too big for the tracks, according to a release from Durkan’s office earlier this summer, although Seattle Transit blog calls that claim “overblown”: “ the size of the vehicles is easily explained: they’re low floor vehicles designed to help people with disabilities load ... the vehicles should fit the track.”

While both the rising costs and issues with existing streetcars have made the project somewhat controversial, support for building the line is broad. The Downtown Seattle Association, Alliance for Pioneer Square, Sierra Club’s Seattle chapter, Northwest Progressive Institute, and others have been strongly lending their support for the project.

At this point, the project could go either way—and the report doesn’t detail all the factors in the streetcar’s fate. There’s that grant money, community benefit, and even legal risks to consider.

“No final decision will be made by Mayor Durkan on the project until costs, feasibility, litigation risks, and community impacts are understood,” said a spokesperson for the mayor’s office. “In the coming weeks, Mayor Durkan will continue to seek public and stakeholder input on the opportunities and challenges moving forward and evaluate budget options moving forward.”

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