Even with new acting director, Seattle Department of Transportation seems unlikely to unstick work to speed up First Hill Streetcar

(Image: SDOT)

A project to speed up the notoriously pokey First Hill Streetcar remains stuck in neutral on Capitol Hill and the mayor’s new choice for an interim leader for her transportation department seems unlikely to kick the work into motion.

Seattle Department of Transportation officials have responded to CHS inquiries about the project to streamline the streetcar’s route with a proposed four-block southbound “Business Access and Transit” lane on Broadway that would shave off three minutes of travel time and be part of a package of changes hoped to boost ridership by about 10% — 350 riders — per day.

Property owners and business representatives tell CHS that SDOT has remained silent on the project that had been planned for construction this summer. The department said Monday that the project isn’t dead.

“SDOT is currently continuing the design phase of a potential southbound Business and Transit Lane (BAT) lane from Pine to Marion to increase First Hill Streetcar reliability,” the statement sent to CHS by a department spokesperson read. “We also continue to engage with the community in Capitol Hill.”

Monday, Jenny Durkan named a new acting head of her transportation department but the mayor said former Washington Department of Transportation official Linea Laird will be focused on the coming teardown of the Alaska Way Viaduct and the new SR 99 and tunnel through downtown.

“As we head into upcoming construction that will constrain our downtown streets, Linea will bring strong experience to oversee the delivery of Move Seattle levy and our City’s major capital transportation projects as well as expertise around Center City mobility challenges,” Durkan said in her announcement.

UPDATE: A message from the SDOT staff managing the Broadway project shared in CHS comments blames the stall on the mayor:

At this time, the First Hill Broadway corridor improvements are on hold while we wait for the Mayor to make her decision on the Center City Streetcar. We have alerted her about the proposed improvements on Broadway and she has not yet given her direction.

Seattle streetcars have had a rough year. This spring, the Seattle Times reported that the downtown “Center City Connector” streetcar line could cost 50% more than planned. Durkan put a stop on the project until a “full, independent review of the streetcar’s finances” had been completed this summer — City Hall has yet to release the findings. Community support for the line includes hope on First Hill for a better connected streetcar system. But critics are seizing the opportunity to kick Seattle’s trolley transit solution while it is down.

The inaction on the Broadway improvements could be related to the stalling. In April, CHS reported on business community opposition to the planned changes. “This feels like the city is doubling down on something that wasn’t that great of an idea to begin with,” Tracy Taylor of Elliott Bay Book Company said of the Broadway reconfiguration proposals at a meeting organized by SDOT and the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce in April. Some business and property owners in the area followed up on that meeting with letters to City Hall opposing elements of the streamlining plans including the elimination of left-turns and the addition of red paint for a transit-only lane.

If SDOT ultimately acknowledges the plan is on ice, the Broadway improvements near Pike and Pine will join the planned but ultimately scuttled project to extend the streetcar line north on Broadway to Roy on Capitol Hill’s transit planning scrap heap.

The First Hill Streetcar opened in January 2016 after long delays and years of construction to begin service on the new line connecting Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill via First Hill. The 2.5-mile route shares streets with vehicular traffic and, as a result, is subject to slowdowns that also snarl buses and commuters in cars. The line was projected to serve more than 1.2 million riders in 2016, but only 840,000 passengers were tallied by SDOT’s estimates. About 3,500 riders were riding the streetcar daily earlier this year, according to SDOT.

For now, the “Broadway Corridor Streetcar Improvement Project” remains on SDOT’s “Spot Improvements” roster. Time is running out, however, on its “recommended schedule” for construction in “summertime 2018.”


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10 thoughts on “Even with new acting director, Seattle Department of Transportation seems unlikely to unstick work to speed up First Hill Streetcar

  1. I actually reached out to Jonathan Dong, one of the project coordinators for this improvement project and I received the following answer:

    “At this time, the First Hill Broadway corridor improvements are on hold while we wait for the Mayor to make her decision on the Center City Streetcar. We have alerted her about the proposed improvements on Broadway and she has not yet given her direction. ”

    So it sounds like ALL Streetcar improvements are being held up by Jenny Durkan.

  2. “SDOT is currently continuing the design phase of a potential southbound Business and Transit Lane (BAT) lane from Pine to Marion to increase First Hill Streetcar reliability,” the statement sent to CHS by a department spokesperson read. “We also continue to engage with the community in Capitol Hill.

    Indicates that they are doing outreach. What is the outreach? This quote in the article seems contrary to what Alex is stating.

  3. It seems like SDOT might increase streetcar ridership more by routing it a block north on Broadway for a left onto Olive Way and then down Denny Way to a link with the existing segment at Westlake and Denny. This would allow commuters to ride the streetcar from First Hill and Capitol Hill to worksites in S Lake Union.

  4. It’s so that when she kills the Center City Connector they can still move ahead with this modest improvement and say “see we’re not totally anti-transit, we’re still doing this super cheap no-brainier improvement for the First Hill line”

  5. “The 2.5-mile route shares streets with vehicular traffic and, as a result, is subject to slowdowns that also snarl buses and commuters in cars. The line was projected to serve more than 1.2 million riders in 2016, but only 840,000 passengers were tallied by SDOT’s estimates. About 3,500 riders were riding the streetcar daily earlier this year, according to SDOT.”

    Exactly what those opposed to streetcars predicted would happen when this boondoggle was first proposed.

    Now the streetcar zealots want to double down on a bad investment (even worse, tripple down by shoveling yet more money into the CCC).

    The smart thing to do at this point is to admit that streeetcars are the worst possible tranist option (high infrastructure cost to deliver service that could be done as well or better with a bus) and focus our limited trasnportation dollars elsewhere.

    • The streetcar is litterally the only high capacity transit investment planned for the center city before 2035. It will move more people than any bus line in the region and will be one of the highest performing streetcars in the nation. What about busses? Seattle is sitting on money for transit expansion that it can’t spend because Metro cant add busses and drivers for the next 5 to 7 years–no busses or bus bay space, or new drivers. This project connects the fastest growing neighborhoods in our city. It is largely funded by the federal government. It’s shovel ready. It is time to get this project back on track!

      • A streetcar can’t be any of what you clain when the tracks get blocked and it ends up out-of-service, as it did again this morning.

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