Streetcar cost now more than $100 million above what city estimated three years ago

SEATTLE — The cost of a new downtown Seattle streetcar line is more than $100 million higher than the city first promised.

On Friday, Mayor Jenny Durkan revealed results of a closely-guarded consultant's report her office had been reviewing for weeks, which showed how ridership estimates for the city's two existing streetcar lines were wildly off.

Durkan painted a bleak picture of the project's finances and was very critical of the former Seattle Department of Transportation managers, whom she suggested lowballed costs, overestimated ridership and ordered streetcars that don't fit.

Rising costs 

In 2015, SDOT estimated the cost of the Center City Connector, which would run through downtown and connect to the South Lake Union and First Hill lines, at $143 million.

Last year, that rose to nearly $198 million, and it is now estimated at $252 million, based on an independent review of capital costs by consultant KPMG.

"Clearly, the project is significantly more expensive than the people were ever told," Durkan said.

Ridership estimates

The KPMG report analyzes a few scenarios, including building the streetcar as planned, scaling back the service to save money on new cars and not continuing with the expansion project.

It estimates that if the expansion is fully built as planned, 6.9 million people could ride the entire streetcar system after the fifth year, which is estimated to be 2027.

By contrast, if only the two existing lines continue in service, as few as 1.5 million people might ride.

Durkan expressed skepticism over those projections, given that previous estimates for the city's two existing lines were "significantly optimistic."

In 2014, SDOT estimated 2.1 million riders on the line in 2017.

In fact, only 1.5 million rode that year.

Durkan and outgoing SDOT interim director Goran Sparrman said ridership matters to revenue, because every 1 million riders correlates to $1.5 million in funding.

Of the previous ridership estimates, Sparrman said, "Frankly, they're not accurate and we've been trying to track down exactly how those numbers were produced."

Wrong streetcars purchased

Then there's the ordering of new streetcars that are longer and heavier than current models.

How did that happen?

"Because of the turnover in personnel, we don't have complete clarity and it was an error," Durkan said. "Bottom line, there's no excuse that the streetcars don't fit."

The city is now reviewing if the new streetcars are too heavy to run on a viaduct over railroad tracks at 4th and Jackson.

The review about the larger streetcars is expected to be done this fall.

That could push costs even higher for a project that's now more than $100 million over a budget set just three years ago.

The mayor says she will wait for that total cost estimate, as well as opinions from the public and information about transit alternatives, before making her decision about the streetcar's future.

If she decides to go ahead with the streetcar, the project could face a lengthy federal review.

City officials are also concerned about funding uncertainty from the Federal Transit Administration, King County Metro and Sound Transit.

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