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Center City Connector streetcar project keeps inching forward

The fraught streetcar project just got a loan from the city that will allow it to keep moving

The South Lake Union streetcar.
Albert Pego/Shutterstock

The Seattle City Council voted Monday to lift another roadblock preventing the Center City Connector streetcar from moving forward: a $9 million loan to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) for project design and to figure out a new baseline for project costs moving forward.

The money comes from the city’s Department of Information Technology. Funds will be paid back through the sale of the Mercer Megablock, which is expected to be completed in 2020. The city negotiated a sale price of around $140 million.

The streetcar project, which was initially slated for completion in 2020, was put on hold by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office last March amid rising costs. After ten months and a completed audit, the mayor’s office gave a tentative go-ahead, although by that point the streetcar’s timeline had extended through 2025 to meet federal grant schedules. Since then, the city’s been looking at what’s needed to proceed.

“They’ve done a bunch of analysis and would like to proceed with further analysis,” said councilmember Mike O’Brien, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, before the vote. That includes studying car size and “changes that could need to be made to the bases.” (At one point during the delay, the mayor’s office questioned the cars’ ability to fit on the tracks.)

Both bad news and good news came from the city’s study. A city-commissioned report by auditor KPMG found that project capital costs—the cost of city scoping and construction for the line—could run between $241.9 million and $252.4 million, compared $177 million, the budget at the time of the hold. Since that initial report, the city has upped its cost estimates to $286 million, including the cost to redo some already completed design and engineering work, an extra $17.4 million for engineering analysis, and $10 million in added construction costs. Part of this $9 million loan is nailing down how much everything could actually cost further along.

But the benefits of building the streetcar, the audit found, could be far-reaching. It would link Seattle’s two existing streetcar lines, and could boost ridership on all of them to 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, according to the KPMG report. Not only would the Center City Connector complete the unconnected network, 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 (save for a public-private shuttle) running west of the Third Avenue bus corridor after the demise of Metro route 99, which itself replaced a waterfront trolley line.

Waiting longer could end up costing more money—through inflation, repeated work, and potential loss of federal funding. A Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant is part of the project’s funding puzzle, and the city’s office of intergovernmental relations has expressed concern about how the delay will affect project funding.

The unclear fate of the project’s federal money factored into the one “no” vote from councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and South Park and has long been skeptical of the project. Before the vote, Herbold expressed concern about a lack of funding contingencies.

“The most likely option to be proposed that we’ll probably hear in the future to pay for these extra costs is by not funding other transportation priorities,” said Herbold. “And as we all know, we have a lot of transportation priorities.”

The city is waiting on FTA money from both the Small Starts and Capital Investments grant programs, neither of which is in-hand. Herbold pointed to a potential $140 million funding gap if federal money doesn’t come through, an estimate released by the mayor’s office based on its analysis during the hold.

While both the rising costs and issues with existing streetcars have made the project somewhat controversial, support for building the line is broad. An alliance called the Seattle Streetcar Coalition has been advocating for the line’s completion, and includes businesses, advocacy groups, nonprofits, and some higher-profile private citizens in downtown, South Lake Union, Pioneer Square, and the International District.

Those neighborhoods are home to the current isolated streetcar lines—and many have been looking forward to being part of a more robust network. A 2013 report by NW Asian Weekly notes an anecdotal change in foot traffic to International District businesses during First Hill Streetcar construction.

“Our community was told our pain and suffering during the [First Hill Streetcar] construction phase would be worth it because we’d have a connected system to benefit our residents and businesses,” said Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International Preservation and Development Authority, earlier this year. “With the First Avenue line, we will have a connected, functioning system and this community will actually see the promised benefits.”