Seattle may need to pick up more costs on South Lake Union streetcar

The city and King County are looking at changes in how much of the operations Metro Transit must pay.
The South Lake Union Trolley: expansion of streetcars is under consideration in Seattle.

The South Lake Union Trolley: expansion of streetcars is under consideration in Seattle. Steve Morgan/Wikimedia Commons

As King County Metro Transit grapples with budget problems, the Metropolitan King County Council is considering capping the amount of money that Metro contributes annually toward South Lake Union streetcar service. The size of that capped contribution could decrease depending on how the county implements broad Metro service cuts that are set to unfold this fall and throughout next year.

Metro's annual payments toward streetcar service are governed by a cost-sharing agreement it maintains with the City of Seattle. Under an amended agreement the County Council's transportation committee is considering, Metro would contribute fixed amounts of money to pay for the streetcar line's operations and maintenance, regardless of whether those costs rise or fare revenues decline. Currently, fare revenues are applied to the line's operations and maintenance costs, and the uncovered costs are then divided between the county and the city on a percentage basis.

The county pays 75 percent and the city 25 percent of those costs. In 2013, the county contributed $1,444,959 and the city paid $481,653, according to a County Council staff report.

The current cost-sharing agreement has been in place since 2007 and expires at the end of the year. The new five-year agreement that is pending before the council would cap Metro's contribution at $1,350,000 in 2015 and bump that cap up by $50,000 annually through 2019. Based on the estimates in the staff report, the city's payment would increase to about $554,000 in 2015, roughly $72,000 more than it chipped in last year.

This new arrangement would mean that if, for some reason, the streetcar started running more frequently, labor costs went up, or ridership went down, Metro, which operates the streetcar, would be saved from shouldering additional costs.

"The main implication for the city is that [the cost of] any future service increases won't be borne by Metro," said Bill Bryant, manager of transit system development for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

The amount of money Metro puts toward the streetcar could also drop depending on how the county decides to carry out a series of systemwide transit cuts, which are slated to begin this September.

Metro has an ongoing budget gap of up to $75 million, and has recommended to the County Council that annual transit service be reduced by about 550,000 hours, or about 16 percent of operational hours. Metro has identified the streetcar as one of the lines ripe for service reductions. This is because it performs poorly on nights and weekends, based on one of the two ridership metrics the agency uses.

During peak, rush-hour time periods ridership is stronger.

Metro has not proposed cutting a specific number of hours from streetcar service, according to spokesperson Jeff Switzer. He added, however, that the agency has estimated that about one-third of the streetcar's service hours are low-performing compared to other routes.

The cost-sharing agreement allows Metro to reduce the size of its contribution to operations and maintenance funding by a proportion that is equal to the amount of low-performing hours. One-third of the 2015 figure of $1,350,000 in the proposed agreement would be about $445,500, reducing Metro's commitment to roughly $904,500 annually. That number is far from final. Concrete details about any potential streetcar funding reductions will not emerge until the County Council approves a package of systemwide service cuts.

The full County Council will consider a proposal on Monday that would authorize Metro to begin some of those cuts and would set up a new committee process for deciding how to make further reductions going forward.

"When the King County Council has adopted specific Metro service reductions, Metro and Seattle will do a final calculation," Switzer said in an email. "What, if any, hours are actually cut and where is up to the city to finalize."

SDOT's Bryant said that Amazon, which has offices in South Lake Union, agreed in 2012 to provide enough funding to allow service to run every 10 minutes between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, for 10 years beginning in 2015.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Thu, Jul 17, 10:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Does the SLUT really provide $2 million a year worth of subsidized service? Do other mass transit routes cost $1.5 million per mile to run every year?

Seems like a really expensive subsidy for such a short line.

talisker

Posted Thu, Jul 17, 3:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Costs more to build, costs more to operate, fare collection is lower than on buses. What's not to love?

simorgh

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 7:23 a.m. Inappropriate

But it looks so European!

talisker

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 12:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Costs to operate are actually lower than diesel buses. Fare revenue however, could be comparable to both diesel and trolleybus, were it not for the incompetent streetcar route arrangements, current and proposed from Metro and Sdot. Who is not surprised the Broadway Streetcar line is behind schedule?

Wells

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate

The farebox recovery rate for short bus routes is higher than the system average, because there are more boardings per mile. SLUT revenues are a bit below Metro's system-wide average, thus are less efficient than comparable bus routes. This is not because there aren't more streetcars, and proponents never explain their claims to the contrary. Just another talking point.

Where is the data showing that costs to operate the SLUT are below Diesel?

simorgh

Posted Fri, Jul 25, 4:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Simorgh, "Costs to operate streetcars are 'potentially' lower than diesel/bus.
Fare revenue is comparable or exceeds both diesel bus and trolleybus were it not
for "inexcusably incompetent" streetcar route arrangements, current and proposed.

I favor 1 mile streetcar extension -Westlake-to-1st Ave terminus/return -or- loop/return.
Pike Place to Jackson streetcar Left-Lane/Center Stations (2) is hazardous for traffic and neglects basic curbside that continues as is. Sdot & Metro employ half-hearted nitwits.
"oh, man, that's so trans-disciplinarian, or, duo-transfixionational, I forget which?"

Wells

Posted Thu, Jul 17, 5:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm all for raising the subsidy. Let make this the poster child the "progressive" Seattle's subsidy of its favorite multi-billionaire's boondoggle. The more the better.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Jul 17, 5:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Let's use the figures provided in the article to illustrate just what a stupidly expensive toy the S.L.U.T. really is.

Keep in mind that the total length of the S.L.U.T. is about 1.3 miles, end-to-end.

The public operating subsidy in 2013 was $1,926,612. Divided by the 760,933 boardings, that comes to about $2.50 per boarding in tax subsidies.

The total operating cost of the S.L.U.T., including the 28% collected in fares was more than $2,675,850 in 2013 (it does not say how much money the businesses chipped in for more-frequent afternoon service). That comes to operating cost of over $3.52 per boarding. Since the average trip on the S.L.U.T. is probably well under one mile, this means that the operating cost per passenger-mile for the S.L.U.T. is more than $3.52! More than $3.52 per passenger-mile in operating costs!

By comparison, Metro buses cost 99 cents per passenger-mile to operate. So, the S.L.U.T. costs 3 and 1/2 times as much per passenger-mile to operate as Metros buses.

The operating cost of a medium sedan in the U.S. in 2013 was about 12 cents per passenger-mile, according to the AAA.

So, the S.L.U.T. costs over $3.52 per passenger-mile to operate compared to 12 cents for a medium sedan. That means that the S.L.U.T. costs about 30 times as much to operate per passenger-mile as an average mid-size car. THIRTY TIMES as much!

Streetcars in Seattle are nothing more than insanely expensive toys for Yuppies.

Lincoln

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Those are exactly the numbers I came up with when I ran them.

I understand that public transportation requires significant tax dollars to be competitive with other forms of transportation, but if the line were to ever break even it would need to carry almost 10,300 riders per day which is more than 80% of it's potential capacity. And about 7500 more passengers per day than it currently carries.

The capital costs of these streetcar lines are significant but they pale in comparison to the ongoing operating costs.

talisker

Posted Thu, Jul 17, 8 p.m. Inappropriate

Paul Allen should probably pick up Seattle's share, since the Slut operates in Allentown.

sarah90

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

The SLUT was the price of having Vulcan build in South Lake Union. The city is easily recouping it's investment via sales tax from the employees who shop on the way to work, eat out, and on the way home, nevermind the increased property tax for all those high rises built down there. Plus no new schools were put in to service that area. Should be a huge net gain for the city. So chipping in a few measily million so that a developer would build out was well worth it.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

People shop on the way to work, eat out, and on the way home in other neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods are not blessed with their own special streetcar; some of them barely have transit, and some of them don't have schools. SLU is different because of one multibillionaire who has always held tremendous power in the city.

sarah90

Posted Sat, Jul 19, 11:54 p.m. Inappropriate

But sarah90, you and your fellow worthless "progressives" asked for it. This is what happens when you keep it up with your stupid, corrupt, "progressive" city government. You dug the hole, baby.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Absolutely not true - Paul Allen had been amassing properties outside of the boundaries of the proposed Commons since the early/mid 1990's specifically to develop them.

More important, however, is the fact that the City sold him all of the properties it had been sitting on that were originally intended for the abandoned Bay Freeway project. They structured the bid so that no one else could effectively compete for the properties (LIHI tried, among others), and those were sold both with the requirement that they be developed in a fixed period of time and were accompanied by the Council policy statement that the property sale meant that the Mercer Corridor was to remain essentially as-is.

Allen did a nice job of subsequently blackmailing to public to underwrite development schemes he had already written and was in the process of implementing, but to say that he wouldn't have done any of that absent the SLUT boondoggle simply is NOT the case.

Posted Sat, Jul 19, 6:58 p.m. Inappropriate

The SLUT has absolutely nothing to do with the development in SLU. Allen owned a lot of land there. He was not going to just let it sit undeveloped if there were no streetcar.

Don't be a fool.

Lincoln

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 12:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Those not wanting to live in a city with a vibrant urban core should move to, uh, Everett, forthwith. Goodbye.

28% is being paid by riders, $300,000/year thrown in by Amazon, etc., plus increased city tax revenues have to be taken into consideration. Also, the more people who choose to live and work in Seattle, something streetcars are meant to encourage, the fewer commuters Metro and ST need ferryt across the Lake or from regions north and south.

Save the head tax for funding affordable housing...

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 7:43 p.m. Inappropriate

A bus would be cheaper and more flexible.
I would support a vibrant bus.

But this isn't about transit or vibrancy, but an amenity.

Mr Baker

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 9:56 p.m. Inappropriate

The SLUT is a mode of transportation that was designed for one employment group in one particular area. It doesn't encourage anything. Perhaps you haven't tried to drive OR bus in South Lake Union at just about any time of the day; there's nothing vibrant about it, and the SLUT has done nothing to make it any less convenient.

sarah90

Posted Sat, Jul 19, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

The area is in the midst of massive development - of course there are going to be some traffic issues. Dozens of projects are under construction or completed, with dozens more in the design/planning stages. Development is already extending into the Denny Triangle and Cascade/Fairview.

If you figure in future increases to city revenues due to the development of a major employment, business, retail, and housing center, the SLUT is going to pay her own way, and then some.

On the other hand, you won't find any streetcars in Everett...

Posted Sat, Jul 19, 7 p.m. Inappropriate

The SLUT has absolutely nothing to do with any development in S. Lake Union. Allen was going to develop the land he owned there with or without the SLUT. Just letting that land sit there underdeveloped was not making Allen any money.

Get a clue.

Lincoln

Posted Sun, Jul 20, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

"The SLUT has absolutely nothing to do with any development in S. Lake Union."

Bullpuckies...

Your claim that only one developer is involved is utterly false.

Virtually all development that is completed or under construction in the area is within a block or two of the streetcar line. It has been part of the development plan from the start.

Streetcars, simply due to the permanent and fixed nature of their routes, allow for denser and more sustained development than mere bus service would allow, in that they appeal to a wider demographic, including many who won't ride buses because of the social stigma attached to them. Streetcars allow more people without cars to live, work, and shop within the city.

Much has been written about Transit Oriented Development (TOD), but much less about Development Oriented Transit (DOT). In reality, they go hand-in-hand.

Historically, virtually every Seattle neighborhood was initially developed along streetcar lines.

Posted Mon, Jul 21, 12:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Utter nonsense. Streetcars have NOTHING to do with any development.

How many streetcars are there in Bellevue? In Ballard? In downtown Seattle? In Belltown?

None. You have to be a complete fool to believe that SLU would not have developed exactly the way it has if the SLUT were not built.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Jul 22, 1:26 p.m. Inappropriate

The SLUT isn't even useful to Amazonians. Amazon's campus sits in the middle of the 1.3 mile route, meaning that walking in either direction is a little more than half a mile at the most. Considering you have to wait for a streetcar to arrive, then pay $2.50 to ride it, all to go less than a mile is a ridiculous idea.

The SLUT adds no tangible value to anyone in the area and is therefore a complete waste of money.

aminshar

Posted Tue, Jul 22, 12:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Who makes vibrating buses? Is that a special option for the lift?

Anandakos

Posted Fri, Jul 18, 10:30 p.m. Inappropriate

A major driver for building streetcars is because many people making a decent wage object to riding buses with all those icky poor people. Rich people don't ride buses or streetcars but they do wield a lot of power in this city and can pretty much get what they want. Allen wanted a streetcar and he got it.

My suggestion would be for Vulcan and Amazon to make up the difference in operating costs to keep the SLUT running at the frequency and hours that Allen and Bezos want. Either that or cut the hours just like the buses in the rest of the city are being cut and let people ride the #40.

nwcitizen

Posted Sat, Jul 19, 7:01 p.m. Inappropriate

How many streetcars are there in Bellevue?

Lincoln

Posted Sun, Jul 20, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Let Allen and Bezos subsidize this ridiculous vanity or charge the full cost of the fares to the riders. Enough corporate welfare already!

mspat

Posted Sun, Jul 20, 12:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Farebox recovery (28%) and developer and employer sponsorships ($300,000/year) already cover a substantial portion of operating costs.

Arguing that users cover the full cost of transit is tantamount to arguing for eliminating transit as such, in that no major metropolitan transit systems operates without some level of subsidy. Systems with higher farebox recoveries (30%+) are either systems in large cities with heavy investment in rail transport (heavy/light rail and streetcars) or in smaller cities providing substandard and truncated service.

Posted Sun, Jul 20, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

I think we know who Paul Allen's spokesliar is ...

NotFan

Posted Sun, Jul 20, 3:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I speak for no one but myself. Calling me a liar doesn't respond to a single thing I've posted, and just shows what an IDIOT you are.

Posted Sun, Jul 20, 11:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Somewhere between 28% (below average) and 100% is a more helpful benchmark. Because the capital costs of streetcars are higher we should expect higher farebox recovery. Instead we have less -- perhaps because enforcement is virtually nil in this mode.

simorgh

Posted Mon, Jul 21, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

"Somewhere between 28% (below average)..."

28% farebox recovery is not below average for transit systems without heavy rail. National averages:

Heavy rail: 66%
Comm. rail: 52%
Trolleybus: 36%
Light rail: 28%
Buses: 27%

See: http://www.ntdprogram.gov/ntdprogram/pubs/national_profile/2011NationalProfile.pdf

For instance, Washington DC's Metrorail has a farebox recovery ratio of 67.5%, while Metrobus' is 24.3%.

See: http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/21940/comparing-metrobus-and-metrorail-farebox-recovery-is-apples-and-oranges/

Posted Thu, Jul 24, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Your response makes my point: The SLUT is not a "major metropolitan transit system," it's a vanity project and should be treated as such, i.e., either Allen and Bezos and any other employers whose employees use it should pay for the whole thing, or the users themselves should pay the freight. The chance of most of us ever using the SLUT is near zero.

mspat

Posted Mon, Jul 21, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

A couple of the comments have mentioned that there is (what should we call it?) a 'class prejudice' that makes out streetcars as being more desirable to ride than buses because the latter are seen as catering more to 'poor people'. But--Am I wrong here?--streetcar fares are the same as bus fares, no? If so, then both forms of public transportation are as likely to carry lower-income riders. Could someone please explain why buses seem to carry this 'stigma' which somehow doesn't attach to streetcars? (And just saying "it's irrational" offers no explanation.)

(Incidentally, as a CARless Seattle resident I ride the buses all the time--and occasionally the light rail--, and I only learn about such fine distinctions of opinion concerning such things by reading about them in places like this. It's great to discover that something I do and many of us do as a regular part of our lives is looked down upon by many of our fellow citizens.)

Posted Mon, Jul 21, 12:56 p.m. Inappropriate

The stigma exceeds the reality, of course...

Buses serve a broader demographic than streetcars, which are more likely to be utilized to spur mid- to upscale development, and thus less likely to carry the poor or homeless. This is more true of modern streetcars than of legacy streetcars.

It could also be argued that the layout of buses (double seats and narrow aisles) compel closer proximity and more contact than that of modern streetcars (more single seats and wider aisles).

Posted Mon, Jul 21, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

White yuppies hate to ride buses and cabs. They prefer fixed rail and Uber. Much easier to keep away from the dark and the poor, yearning to breathe the same air.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jul 22, 8:51 p.m. Inappropriate

NF, sure, modern preferences are that people (not just white yuppies) like to actually sit in a seat when riding in any type of vehicle.

I detest standing up on a lurching bus, trying to hold a handrail over my head, or a pole on the side. I hated that when I was younger, hate it even more today. And, I won't ride on public transportation that makes me feel like I'm about to be begged for money from, pick pocketed, held up, stabbed, shot or simply have to endure Mr. Smelly who hasn't brushed the few teeth he has left in 17 years, let alone bathed.

Do I sound like a yuppie? S-Oh-Dear ... I'm so sorry 'bout that.

Posted Mon, Jul 21, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

We're talking about the SLUT, and South Lake Union is not known as a center of low-income jobs or low-income apartments. It used to be, but that was before Paul Allen's takeover. So it's highly unlikely that the upscale SLUT has any downscale riders on it.

I don't think fares should be raised. I think Allen should make up the cost, or all the big corporations in SLU, because no one else would be discommoded if the SLUT didn't exist. Other corporations downtown and elsewhere give their employees bus passes, at the corporations' expense. Let Allen et al. do the same.

sarah90

Posted Mon, Jul 21, 6:28 p.m. Inappropriate

The SLUT has the same riders as Metro buses. Have you never ridden the SLUT? I would guess that the great majority of people who ride the SLUT have ORCA cards which they use to ride the bus when they actually want to go somewhere.

Although there are a fair number of tourists who ride the SLUT in the summertime as some sort of tourist attraction -- just like the monorail or Ride the Ducks.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Jul 22, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

The main point is that the SLUT exists because of a deal with Allen and the City. That was two administrations ago. No one else but Allen wanted that streetcar. The City Council could, at any point, eviscerate the remaining portions of that deal, or do whatever they want. However, that would take a majority of the Council to develop some courage, and that's not likely.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Jul 22, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

If the SLUT is ever connected to the Capital Hill Trolley (which the 1st Ave proposal does) it might become useful. However without stop light priority it's stuck in the same traffic as the rest of us. And because they put the rails in the right hand lane of Westlake it's a menace to bicycle riders.

So at the moment if the trolley isn't at the Westlake station, you can walk to Lake Union before it arrives and goes there. That's not a particularly useful transit option.

One other thing, since Amazon has contributed more money for extra runs, one can assume that the company likes it.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Jul 22, 1:30 p.m. Inappropriate

The SLUT is so useless. If the route extended up to Eastlake there could at least be some actual commuter traffic. However it could never pay for itself so what's the point?

aminshar

Posted Tue, Jul 22, 8:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, that's not true Sarah90. Many people thought the SLUT was a good idea. I still like it.

However, I don't like the City Council, bunch of idiots. And that blame lies solely with the voters.

Posted Thu, Jul 24, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I'll be curious to see what the ridership numbers are for the streetcar from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill currently under construction, and how they might compare to the South Lake Union system.

sandik

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »