First Avenue: Is a new streetcar the smartest plan?

Electric trolley lines can be cheaper to build and operate than streetcars. Credit: Orin Viriyincy

Just last week, the City Council granted my request to delay voting on a resolution relating to the proposed Center City Connector (CCC) street rail project slated for First Avenue. The resolution would have both adopted the City Connector Transit Study Locally Preferred Alternative and would have endorsed efforts to pursue federal funding for the project.

After reviewing last week's Council hearing, relevant documents, and listening to comments from community members and stakeholders, I had several serious concerns with the Seattle Department of Transportation's (SDOT) proposal that I believe warrant further consideration.

  • Street rail and other forms of transit on First Avenue: One of my primary apprehensions stems from the choice of street rail on First Avenue, as opposed to other forms of transit that could be substantially cheaper despite offering comparable service. Streetcar capital costs are substantially greater than costs for electric trolley buses, and yearly operating costs are also slightly more expensive.

In SDOT's Transit Master Plan, the total capital cost estimate for a rapid streetcar on the Eastlake corridor was $278 million, averaging $46 million per mile. By contrast, electric trolley bus service was a mere $88 million, or $14.6 million per mile. No estimates were given comparing trolley bus service and street trail capital costs for the First Avenue Center City Connector, although the plan does estimate the total capital cost per mile for CCC rail to be $54 million.

Similarly, annual operating costs for electric trolley buses are slightly less expensive than for street rail. While there are not direct comparisons on First Avenue, yet, SDOT estimates savings of approximately 10 percent for other corridors in its Transit Master Plan. The annual operating cost per boarding ride for the Eastlake corridor, for instance, is $8.9 million for rail and $8.1 million for trolley buses. Similarly, for the Ballard corridor it is $9.1 million and $8 million, respectively.

Given the limited availability of public funding for transportation at almost every level of government, the city must consider electric trolley bus service for First Avenue or for connecting the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines, so that we do not miss out on an option that can provide comparable service for a substantially reduced cost. Since there was no information presented to the Transportation Committee comparing these modes, it seems it was never adequately considered. That is why I've asked SDOT for more information about this option.

  • Questions about project funding: Likewise, there are many questions on requesting federal funds for the CCC. While the council vote would only endorse efforts to seek federal funding, SDOT has yet to decide how much it will ask from the federal government. It is possible the city could receive as much as $75 million, but that would still leave the city looking for at least $40 million to fund the street rail line.

I find it troublesome that there is no identifiable source for providing this amount or for operating the new streetcar. Ethan Melone, rail transit manager for SDOT, told the City Council that there were several possible funding sources, beyond any federal funding. Two of them – proposing funding via ballot measure and raising the commercial parking tax – are both now being considered to save Metro service in our city. It does not make sense to go back to the voters asking for more revenue from these same sources to fund a project that stretches for just over one mile downtown.

  • Allocation of transit resources: With limited public funds for transit, it's also important that the City Council consider how new transit dollars needed for infrastructure are spent. In my request to delay the vote, I noted the serious concerns I had about spending significant capital in the highest transit-served neighborhood in the city, without a noticeable improvement in transit service.

Further, I am concerned about allocating transit resources to downtown when there are so many neighborhoods within this city with severely diminished bus coverage. With the failure of Proposition 1, the April 2014 ballot measure, King County Metro intends to move forward with a 16 percent budget reduction, totaling 550,500 service hours per year across the county. While the City of Seattle is currently working to restore service on routes through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District Transit Ballot Measure, that funding is not yet secured, just as the CCC's isn't. In sum, I do not think the City should be considering the CCC in a vacuum, and should instead consider transit additions, reductions, and changes with a larger context in mind.

  • Moving forward: At this point, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, the chair of the Transportation Committee, has graciously granted a three-week stay on moving forward with this legislation. I am continuing to work with SDOT and the Council to answer more questions about the project prior to moving forward with any particular design or proposal.

I will continue to provide the public updates as we move forward in this process. Despite the plan only calling for a mile-long track to be laid in the center of the city, the allocation of transit dollars will undoubtedly affect Seattle residents from every neighborhood.

We have already witnessed significant cuts in service to our south Seattle and southwest Seattle communities. We should consider the tradeoff we will be making by investing in new fixed rail downtown instead of re-establishing these routes that serve many lower-income and middle-income Seattle residents.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Councilmember Licata's "Urban Politics" blog

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