It may be time to add the First Hill Streetcar to the list of Seattle transit projects facing serious setbacks. After the Seattle Department of Transportation pushed back the launch date from fall 2014 to “early” 2015, CHS has learned that the SDOT now expects the Capitol Hill-to-Pioneer Square streetcar won’t be in service until at least August.
An SDOT official, speaking at last week’s meeting of the Seattle Special Events Committee, said the streetcar would not be operational for this year’s Capitol Hill Block Party, which runs from July 24th-26th. SDOT media personnel did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The SDOT official who spoke at the meeting pointed us to this December update (PDF), but the document says nothing about when the streetcar would come online. Meanwhile, City Council transportation chair Tom Rasmussen also did not respond to our repeated requests for comment on the delay.
The six streetcars for the First Hill line were planned to be ready by October 7th as per the $26.7 million contract with SDOT. According to SDOT, Czech manufacturer, Inekon, had incurred a backlog of orders and a short supply of parts, including brakes, which was holding up production. Inekon, which built the South Lake Union streetcars, was also working out a wiring design issue.
Three of the six trains were undergoing final assembly in Seattle, while three others remained in the Czech Republic. According to SDOT, production in the Czech Republic was on hold until assembly and testing is finished in Seattle.
With the delivery deadline nearly up in October, SDOT announced that Inekon would pay $25,000 after the first day of delay and $1,000 per day thereafter. SDOT did not respond to our questions about these fines.
As of December, three streetcars were still in the Czech Republic and expected to arrive in Seattle by February.
Last February, CHS reported that Inekon incurred a fire resistance issue with the streetcar floors, which pushed back the streetcar’s projected start time from July to fall. SDOT officials said the fire issue was resolved earlier this year.
Construction of the streetcar tracks wrapped up last year along with the construction of the Broadway bikeway. When service begins, the First Hill Streetcar will have ten stations along a 2.5 mile route from S Jackson and Occidental to Broadway and Denny Way and will connect Pioneer Square, the ID, Little Saigon, First Hill and Capitol Hill.
The impact of the delay is difficult to measure. Businesses along the route that suffered through the construction of the line are probably glad to have the work crews and torn-up pavement gone but also are waiting for the promised benefits of the new transit option. The bikeway’s opening, if nothing else, has created an interesting multimodal experiment for the area. And community groups are stuck in a sort of limbo as they’ve been asked to begin planning a celebration of the line’s opening from Pioneer Square, through the International District, First Hill and onto Capitol Hill for an undetermined date. The biggest loser, really, is me and you as we turn another six months older — and anybody who found a new place to live along the line thinking it would soon be in service.
A more general category of those losing out in the delay is transit riders in the area of the line where routes have been “optimized” around planning for the new resource. There are more significant “optimizations” to come with the start of service at Capitol Hill Station by 2016. Fortunately, Sound Transit’s timetable for hitting that mark is looking good — so far.
Once the First Hill line is running, a Broadway extension is being planned as a half-mile, two-stop addition from Denny to Roy that will also include an extended Broadway bikeway. Construction of the two stops, the tracks, and the bikeway could begin in 2016 with an opening in 2017. Meanwhile, Sound Transit expects Capitol Hill Station and the U-Link light rail line between downtown, Broadway, and Montlake to begin service by early 2016.