3 uncomfortable facts about the Seattle streetcar | KUOW News and Information

3 uncomfortable facts about the Seattle streetcar

Jul 27, 2018

Mayor Jenny Durkan is reviewing the Seattle streetcar's Center City Connector line. That project has been on hold since March, and now the mayor has some questions about the entire streetcar system. This week the mayor's office updated the public on the progress of the review.

Here are three points that made us sit up straight:

1. The cost of building the Connector line keeps getting higher. 

The decade-old South Lake Union line cost $56.4 million. The newer First Hill line cost $177 million.

The Center City Connector was first thought to be a $166 million project. It then grew to $177 million, and in an update this week, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said the cost is now “more than $200 million.” How much more? That's another question the mayor has. 

We are looking at around $400 million for a system that covers five miles and connects some of Seattle’s densest neighborhoods.

2. 5,000 people ride the streetcar lines daily

An average of 5,000 people ride the two existing streetcar lines daily. This is the same number of people who rode the streetcar two years ago. 

The lack of growth in ridership means that the streetcar farebox only adds up to $1.5 million, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. 

But it costs much more to run the streetcar lines. Operating the lines is expected to cost $5.9 million this year to the city of Seattle and its partners. Sound Transit pays another $5 million a year, and King County tosses in $1.5 million.

That brings the total cost of operating the two streetcar lines to $12.3 million a year, with users contributing 12 percent of that amount.

3. Streetcars are not very good at transit. 

Streetcars are people movers, but Florida State University professor Jeff Brown says they are often not thought of that way by their supporters. 

In most cities, Brown says the primary rationale for investing in streetcars "has to do with economic development, promoting business activity, place-making." He says people talk about a vision for their city: A streetcar is often part of the idea of how things should be. It can also be a way to move tourists to struggling neighborhoods. 

But Brown, who is just completing a study of the Seattle and Portland streetcars, says he does look at them from a transportation point of view.

Most streetcar systems, he says, aren't designed to connect to other forms of transit, like light rail or buses. 

“As transportation investments go," Brown says, "most streetcars assessed solely on their transportation merits do not perform particularly well.”

Correction, 1:37 p.m., 7/31/2018: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the percent of the cost of the streetcar covered by fares.