The First Hill-Capitol Hill streetcar is, yes, on track to begin service in late 2013 after the City Council transportation committee today passed a bill approving a memorandum of agreement between Sound Transit and the City of Seattle to pay for, plan and manage the streetcar line. The project is designed to connect Union Station to the Capitol Hill light rail station providing service to First Hill’s health-care workers and neighborhood residents when it is completed in 2016.
The bill approved by the committee today also puts the City Council in the streetcar driver’s seat calling for the government branch to define the line’s route and own the ongoing funding process to manage any costs overruns or renegotiation with Sound Transit. The agreement also calls for the Sound Transit Board to have approval as the design plans take shape.
Sound Transit is funding the city project in lieu of a First Hill-area station that could not be built as part of the light rail line. The bill approving the agreement now moves on to the full council. That vote may take place as soon as this Monday.
The agreement calls for Sound Transit to provide $120 million to fund construction of the line which the city will manage. Any construction overruns will be the responsibility of the city. Sound Transit will also provide $5.2 million annually for the city to operate the line starting in 2016. If the line starts running in 2013 as planned, the agreement calls for ST to annualize the funds it has set aside for operation over the longer period and pay out a smaller amount each year. City transportation planner Ethan Melone said that the city believes it can operate the line on the reduced budget and still meet Sound Transit’s service requirement.
We’ve included screengrabs of two of Melone’s slides from the committee meeting (sorry for the low quality). Melone described a process that begins with the City Council reviewing potential routes for everything from environmental, to community, to budgetary impacts over the next year with construction potentially beginning as early as 2011.
During the public comment period, Jim Erickson of the First Hill Improvement Association voiced his support for the plan. “Payback for this investment will begin on day one of its operation,” Erickson said. Kate Stineback of Capitol Hill Housing also spoke in support of the plan and the community process that will also shape the streetcar’s route. “The communities that I work in are very excited about a fully funded streetcar,” Stineback said, adding that she also wants data to drive analysis of the various possible routes for the line.
Councilmember Nick Licata dared utter the t-word asking if the agreement allowed for Sound Transit’s funding to be redirected to electric trolleys if the streetcar line proved unfeasible before construction. The short answer: no. Sound Transit’s Board has specifically approved funds for a streetcar line. To re-direct the funds would require their approval, per the streetcar agreement. Given that the ST Board has positioned the First Hill streetcar as a voter mandated project, such a change isn’t likely unless environmental or cost factors for the streetcar line are so bad that nothing can be built with the budgeted funds.
One interesting datapoint came up regarding the Boren route that has strong support from some on First Hill. Melone said that, of the potential routes, the steepest grade is on Boren but that the city believes streetcars could handle the slope. “”The steepest part of the alignment would be going up Boren,” Melone said. “We measured the grade and determined it is within the streetcar’s technical capabilities.”
In other words, a steep hill isn’t going to make it easier to arrive at an agreement on the line’s route.
For more on the likely routes for the streetcar, see Streetcar alternative route maps released and Putting more First Hill in the First Hill-Capitol Hill streetcar
- The determination of the line’s route will include opportunity’s for community review and feedback that the Council will oversee.
- The $120 million for construction is planned to also cover a $10 to $14 million streetcar ‘barn’ facility. Location of the maintenance facility will also be part of alignment discussions.
- If construction bids come in above $120 million, the Council will on the spot to decide on how — and if — the city covers the budget gap.
- Per the agreement, Sound Transit keeps all farebox revenue from the line. They also have the right to sell advertising on the cars.
- When the transportation committee last discussed the streetcar this spring, there was discussion of the possibility of extending the route farther north. Low costs on the main route line could be applied to extending the route past the light rail station at John at Broadway. Sound Transit estimated that an extension from John to Aloha would cost about $26 million. We’ll have to follow up to see if this opportunity is still being considered.
- There was also a provision discussed in spring that construction of the streetcar cannot impede construction of the light rail system. This would likely mean the initial streetcar line would run only from Union Station to the Pike/Pine area until the majority of the light rail construction is completed.
- If the streetcar route from Union Station to Capitol Hill does end up with the accelerated schedule, it will be an island route until it can be connected to the route planned for downtown to connect with the service in South Lake Union.
- Trains will run every 10 minutes at peak, 20 minutes off-peak, 20 hours a day except on Sundays when they’ll run a reduced 12-hour schedule