Seattle's streetcar connection questioned days before groundbreaking

SEATTLE — Just days before crews were scheduled to break ground on Seattle’s next streetcar project, council members were still questioning whether it makes sense.

The Center City Connector Streetcar project will, according to the Department of Transportation, connect the two existing streetcar lines and link more than “a dozen” city neighborhoods. The vision for the 1.2-mile connection is to provide an easy link to downtown and give people another option to get around.

Groundbreaking for the project is scheduled for Oct. 18 with advance utility relocations.

But during a Select Budget Committee Session, several council members voiced concerns over the costs of the project, projected ridership numbers, and just how beneficial the streetcar would be.

"Is it beneficial to have service with finite routes?" councilmember Kirsten Harris-Talley asked.

She wondered if it would be better to just pump more money into buses.

The project is estimated to cost about $177 million; higher than initial estimates before utility work was considered.

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In July, the council authorized the Seattle Department of Transportation to accept grants for the streetcar connector. According to a council memo, that includes $50 million from the Federal Transit Administration and $7.3 million from the Puget Sound Regional Council. The federal grant includes another $25 million in the future — the funding is subject to federal appropriations. In September, The Seattle Times reported that if all the federal funding was approved, the approximate $94 million would come from taxes and utility bills.

Council members asked if a streetcar connection would really draw as many riders as SDOT anticipated. Earlier this year, it was reported that SDOT expects 22,000 riders per day when the connection is made. By 2035, the department estimated ridership would soar, with daily ridership reaching 30,000. That, as 770 KTTH's Jason Rantz pointed out, would be a 470 percent increase from current ridership. The First Hill Streetcar, which began operating last year, saw total ridership of 840,049 — below the 1,238,942 projection.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien said he was concerned about the lack of dedicated right-of-way for streetcars. For example, the South Lake Union streetcar shares a lane with vehicles on Fairview Avenue N., where traffic backs up from Mercer Street.

There were also questions over how beneficial the streetcar system actually is to residents, versus being a “tool for economic development.”

With several council members sounding skeptical of the streetcar project, others, including councilmember Rob Johnson, warned of the ramifications if it was scrapped.

“Rarely do we have circumstances where [the federal government] wants to contribute so much,” he said, adding that it’s “not an insignificant” contribution.

Johnson says there could be a “ripple effect” on future projects if the council passes on the money.

You can watch the entire discussion below at the 42-minute mark.