City Hall grapples with how to pay for downtown streetcar linking First Hill and SLU lines


The City Council put planning for one new transit project on temporary hold Monday and decided to quash a plan for public campaign financing in Seattle. Details on the vote — and non-vote — below.

Streetcar link-up
By 2018 Seattle’s street car system should be capable of shuttling riders from 10th and E Roy down to Pioneer Square, past Pike Place Market, and up to Westlake Center on a single ride. Add a transfer, and you’ll be able to ride back up to South Lake Union. The ride would be made possible by the Center City Connector – a proposed 1.1-mile downtown streetcar line along 1st Ave.

Last week, the City Council’s Transportation Committee unanimously approved the Department of Transportation’s plan for the downtown street car (PDF), which includes a stop directly in front of Pike Place Market. The Connector would essentially extend the First Hill Streetcar to Westlake Center and extend the South Lake Union Streetcar to the King St Station. In addition to laying the track, the project would including building new stations at 3rd/Stewart, 1st/Pine, and 1st/Madison.Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 10.51.12 AM

The City Council was expected to approve the plan on Monday, but delayed the vote until July 21st to give SDOT officials more time to work on details of the proposal. The big question is how to pay for it. The new connector is estimated to cost around $110 million, but city officials hope that as much as $75 million could come from a federal grant program.

If all goes according to plan, construction of the line would start in 2016 and be complete by late 2017 or early 2018, said SDOT’s Tony Mazzella. Once the council approves the plan, the project goes to environmental review where the council will decide whether the streetcar should run in a separate lane or mix with traffic.

SDOT recommended the connector line run on an exclusive lane as it would be cheaper over time and travel times for the streetcar would be shorter.

According to Mazzella, SDOT expects a majority of connector riders would use the line to travel between South Lake Union and downtown, and between First Hill and downtown. The benefits for Capitol Hill are a little less enticing, as the University Link Extension will bring passengers from E Denny Way to downtown in just two stops by 2016.

Meanwhile, major construction of the First Hill Streetcar recently wrapped up and track and electrical testing recently got underway. The streetcar is expected to start running this November.

Public campaign financing nixed
On Monday, council members also quashed a proposal to publicly finance city council campaigns. In a 4-4 vote, the council rejected putting the proposal on the council agenda and therefore preventing council members from voting on the measure directly. Council member Mike O’Brien, who supports the measure, rebuked his colleagues for not allowing open debate on the issue. Council president Tim Burgess said he did not want to add a fifth tax/levy measure before Seattle voters this year.

10 thoughts on “City Hall grapples with how to pay for downtown streetcar linking First Hill and SLU lines

  1. Hopefully the council will realize in the time between now and when they next review the central city connector that it is, possibly, the worst public-transit use of $110 million. The corridor between stewart and pioneer square is well served by dozens of bus lines and the LIGHT RAIL to westlake center.

    Who is going to ride from first hill to downtown on a street car?! there are at least 6 bus lines that could give you a one seat ride in far less time depending on where you are riding from, and if you factor in the 1st hill street car to bus or light rail (remember, that is why we have a street car on first hill: connectivity to light rail stops at broadway/john and the ID) connecting pioneer square to westlake with a street car on first avenue is redundant to say the least.

    Lest we forget: if Bertha ever starts moving again, and the sr99 tunnel gets completed, we’ll have 10s of thousands of more cars trying to get through downtown because the tunnel includes exactly zero entrances/exits in downtown, 1st ave is already a gridlocked mess at rush hour, imagine it with two fewer lanes!

    • Though I’m a huge rail advocate, I’m afraid I have to agree. This roundabout track is kinda silly, and don’t get me started on the Bertha debacle. What is desperately needed is traffic relief for Denny, and rail connections to Ballard and Fremont. We need transit visionaries who understand it’s all about connecting by rail the city to her suburbs, which is one of the primary sources of traffic congestion. As many of you other world travelers, I have experienced such rail systems in cities far larger than Seattle (Madrid, Taipei, Hong Kong, etc), and it was awesome. I mean, imagine being able to hop on an easy commuter light or medium rail to Bellevue, Redmond, Shoreline, Kent, Renton, and Everett. Never having to deal with the clusterf*ck that is Denny and the Pike/Pine tributaries again. Close your eyes and just imagine it. But sorry…all our money has gone *POOF* in a broken down ground tunnel borer and goofy streetcars that aren’t hitting the real traffic pain points of Seattle. Alas. At least we got a rail to the airport like other civilized cities.

      • I agree with you. I have had the privilege to travel the world and it’s amazing how quickly you can get from point A to point B – point B can be many many miles away – and you can get there without having to transfer from one mode of transport to another. It doesn’t seem I can really get around this city without taking a trolly to a street car to a bus to a light rail.

        I would love to take mass transit from my Capitol Hill home to my office (4 miles) but with transfers from mode A to mode B it takes 45 minutes when I can drive it in 10-15 min. Doing the math, why would I take mass transit when driving is over an hour less per day.

        It’s too bad we can rewind the clock and redo all these mixed modes of transit and implement 1 underground transit option and 1 surface street option. But we can’t. But why are we allowing transit options to be built that are not complimentary to one another.

        Why aren’t there better East/West transit options. Not only from Seattle Center to Capitol Hill but from Seattle to Issaquah/Redmond. We need to better whisk people in/out of the DT core to their homes/offices in surrounding cities.

    • It is interesting to note the 2008 plan which details both an slu > fremont/ballard and slu > u district line. these two lines would unlock huge areas of the city providing an alternative to buses and private vehicles. And for those who say “the bus system is confusing, tourists don’t ride it, but they will ride street cars” lines to these neighborhoods would provide tourists, or infrequent transit users with easy to identify routes. Now, I for one, believe the problem of confusing bus lines is one of information design and routing that can be solved for far less than the cost of a street car, and rapid ride bus lines certainly speak to that. If only we built true BRT infrastructure and gave rapid ride dedicated lanes during service hours.

      • I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. I’ve touristed around the world enough to know that buses must crawl through a complex network of streets to serve a local populace, and are always a daunting thing to navigate for befuddled tourists. Drivers are usually too busy (paying attention to traffic and managing passengers getting on an off) to explain very complex routes to a tourist. Trains, on the other hand, run through clearly marked lines, and have clearly marked maps within the cars to show you exactly where you’re going. They are far, far less intimidating and you’re far, far less likely to get lost on a train line than on a bus line. And though buses pull a lot of cars out off the road, trains pull even more cars off the road because they can haul a helluva lot more people. A sensible transit system features a robust bus system that feeds into train stations. But this ‘Merica, so single-passenger cars are still King.

    • I too agree with you, Gregory. With a light rail line available from Pioneer Square to Westlake, it is redundant and unnecessary to run a streetcar along 1st Avenue. Spend the money to extend streetcars to areas that really need them!

      • Great, so you’ll have a bunch of disconnected streetcar lines and force two modes of transit on people within a small geographic area. No, let’s connect the two lines we have that will improve their use in the long term.

  2. What if the streetcar could run inside the Light Rail/Bus tunnel on the light rail tracks? That way there’s no need to take away surface lanes, streetcar riders don’t have to get off and transfer, and there’d be more frequent runs inside the tunnel.

    I suppose I’m not sure if it’s technically possible for a streetcar to run on the light rail tracks, but why not?

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