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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