In Another Blow to Downtown Streetcar, New Cost Estimate Adds Another $55 Million In Overruns

The proposed downtown Seattle streetcar, which has been plagued by cost overruns, the potential loss of $75 million in anticipated federal funds, and news that the streetcars the city ordered are 10 feet longer than the existing vehicles, will now cost as much as $252 million, according to a new report from outside consultant KPMG—an increase of $55 million from the previous estimate of $197 million. (The $197 million figure, released in May, was already $37 million higher than the original estimate of $167 million for the 15-block line connecting the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars.)

Mayor Jenny Durkan did not say Friday whether she planned to terminate the streetcar project, although the report makes that outcome appear much more likely. Last week, the Seattle Times reported that Durkan had hired Anne Fennessy, a longtime friend of the mayor’s who lives on the streetcar route with her husband, Durkan’s deputy mayor David Moseley, to oversee the streetcar review. Fennessy’s firm, Cocker Fennessy, is a public relations firm, not an engineering company.

The cost increase, according to today’s report, is being driven primarily by the escalating cost of construction materials and labor, higher costs for utility work, much of which will be  necessary with or without the streetcar; and extra contingency funding “to account for risks such as SDOT civil and facility costs to accommodate new CAF vehicles.”

Last month, Durkan announced that the new streetcar vehicles the city ordered under the previous mayoral administration were longer 10 feet longer than the existing streetcars, which the city says could necessitate alterations to the existing streetcar maintenance barn and changes to the route and existing tracks themselves, to accommodate the wider turning radius of the longer cars. These apparent engineering errors, along with the earlier cost overruns, prompted Durkan’s decision to put the streetcar “on pause” in late March, and to order the independent review.

In addition, according to the report, the city has outstanding debts totaling $17.9 million for the existing First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar lines, which the city has considered paying off with funds from the sale of city property.

The report projects that the current plan could result in an operating deficit of up to $9.9 million a year if ridership is low and external funding from other (non-city) sources, including Sound Transit ($5 million), the Federal Transportation Administration ($430,000) and ads and sponsorships ($980,000) all fails to come through. If ridership is high and all the anticipated external funding does come through, the system could have as much as a $1.9 million annual operating surplus. The report also presents a scenario where the streetcar would run less frequently during off-peak hours (the current proposal assumes it would arrive at stations every 15 minutes for most of the day, and every 10 minutes at rush hour); under that scenario, the streetcar could see an annual surplus of up to $2.7 million with all the external funding, or an annual deficit of up to $4.7 million without it.

The streetcar plan assumes that the Federal Transportation Administration will come through with a $75 million grant; however, the city has not signed an agreement for that funding and the Trump Administration has shown a persistent reluctance to fund transit projects in cities. The administration has already withheld funding for $1.4 billion for shovel-ready transit projects—like the extension of Sound Transit’s Link light rail to Lynnwood—for which federal agreements have been signed, so the $75 million in streetcar funding is far from a done deal.

The report does include a couple of bright spots for streetcar supporters. First, the report estimates that the streetcar will cost between $16.6 million and $19.6 million a year to operate—lower than King County Metro’s estimate of $24 million a year. Second, the report predicts that building the downtown streetcar connector will boost ridership significantly by 2026, to almost four times what it would be on just the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars combined if the downtown streetcar does not open.

Ridership on both existing streetcar lines has consistently fallen short of estimates. Proponents of the downtown streetcar have argued that linking the two lines with a  downtown connector in dedicated right-of-way, separated from auto traffic, will dramatically boost sagging ridership as people choose the streetcar over buses to travel through an increasingly congested downtown core. They also say that a continuous loop connecting First Hill, South Lake Union, and downtown will create a convenient, predictable one-seat route between those destinations.

Support

If Durkan decides to kill the streetcar, the utility work currently underway on First Avenue downtown will continue. The report estimates that that work would account for about $16.5 million of the $55 million cost estimate for the “no build” option, $31 million of which has already been spent. The remainder of that figure would come largely from spending that has already occurred, including design work ($17.3 million), vehicles ($5.8 million) and construction ($8.7 million, although that includes some work SDOT would have to do anyway because of the ongoing utility work, according to the report.)

The report says that if the city decides to move forward with the project, it should immediately start engineering work to figure out how to integrate the new, longer vehicles into the existing system, coordinate with the federal government to start the additional reviews the FTA has said will be needed “to confirm that the Project can continue with the changes” in order for the city to receive a full funding grant agreement for the $75 million in federal funding, and ask the city’s attorneys to weigh in on any liability the city may incur by either restarting or terminating the streetcar project.

Read KPMG’s 23-page summary of its report here. 

9 thoughts on “In Another Blow to Downtown Streetcar, New Cost Estimate Adds Another $55 Million In Overruns

  1. Ross is correct. If Seattle is willing to devote one-half the capacity of 1st Avenue to the CCC Streetcar with 12 trips per hour per direction, it should be willing to devote it to say 40 bus trips per hour per direction and provide much shorter waits for local circulation. The streetcars are over very costly circulators. With the AWV closing the the transit tunnel about to be prematurely closed to buses, it would be much better to use 1st Avenue for existing and funded bus trips rather than yet to be funded streetcars. the connections that could be provided by the CCC are already provided by the LInk and bus network. the local capital would be much better used on several other projects (e.g., sidewalks, RapidRide, trolley bus overhead). Durkan has to clean up the mistakes of mayors Nickels-McGinn-Murry-Burgess.

  2. >> They also say that a continuous loop connecting First Hill, South Lake Union, and downtown will create a convenient, predictable one-seat route between those destinations.

    Well then they flunked geography (or geometry or maybe both). With so much focus on the mode (streetcar) there is way too little attention being spent on the route. Here is a map of the proposed extension: http://ontheworldmap.com/usa/city/seattle/seattle-streetcar-map.jpg. This includes a longer section on Broadway, which will likely never happen, because — like most of the city — the folks on Broadway think the streetcar is silly, and don’t want to see the streets torn up for such silliness.

    What is clear by looking at the route, though, is that it is essentially a loop (an open jaw, if you will). This isn’t good. There is also a very peculiar section around Yesler (a button hook). This is worse. Transit experts have criticized loops (https://humantransit.org/2013/08/translink-high-and-low-performing-routes.html) and circulators (https://humantransit.org/2009/04/seattle-transit-blog-is-reporting-some-grief-from-the-rainier-valley-area-in-southeast-seattle-regarding-king-county-metros.html) and this happens to be both.

    Why the hate? Because they don’t work for even moderately sized trips. This will go from First Hill to South Lake Union, but no one will ever take it from First Hill to South Lake Union. You could walk there faster than that. But it gets worse. From First Hill to First Avenue doesn’t make sense either. From Yesler Terrace to First and Yesler, it is actually faster to walk. Seriously. Check Google, and that walk is faster than a trip from Yesler Terrace to First and Jackson (and that doesn’t include the part that isn’t built yet). If that little segment is really slow, then by definition, other combinations are slower. Trying to get from Harborview to First and James? Take the 3 or the 4. Want to go from Broadway and Madison to First and Madison? Take the 12 for now, but eventually you will take the Madison BRT. Seneca? The 2 is much faster. Pike/Pine? Take your pick between the 10, 11 or 49. John? Come on, just take Link.

    If built, this will forever be slow for even trips of moderate length (a mile) while there will be much better options elsewhere. Eventually, as the city continues to grow its transit system (adding more bus service and Link) it will become obsolete. Better options will exist and it will become merely a tourist attraction. Kind of like the bubbleator, only not nearly as cool (I miss the old bubbleator).

  3. Huh? “Proponents of the downtown streetcar have argued that linking the two lines with a grade-separated downtown connector will dramatically boost sagging ridership…” Where’d this come from? There is NO grade-separation proposed anywhere for this streetcar project. None. Nada. All of it runs at-grade in city streets.

    • I’ll edit to say “dedicated right-of-way” to be more specific. But the point they are making is precisely the same, regardless of the specific language: The downtown streetcar would not run in the same lanes as regular traffic, unlike the existing two streetcars.

      • It will have some dedicated right of way, but the new 1.2 mile section won’t be completely separated from traffic. At least that is my understanding. Much of First Avenue, but not the connecting piece. It would be interesting to dig into the details (hint, hint). Exactly how much of the new routing will be exclusive?

  4. Regardless of what you think of whether ten foot cars can use the same turn radius or national rail weight bearing standards as what the rest of the nation uses, or the fare box underrun, or the construction overrun, or even the routing; Seattle’s Downtown Streetcar project is an ecological triumph for the whole city. Why, you ask?

    Because, as noted by Erica, the projected is not being “engineered” by the UW Engineering Department (who might even have a clue about such things) but by a PR firm run/owned by Jenny’s friend and the Deputy Mayor’s wife – likely for some serious bucks. That means this “thing” smells like rotten fish and if we are recycling rotten fish to fuel this project what a great “win” for those of us who believe in recycling to the max. “Who da thunk it” that Ballard’s Swedish and Norwegian ancestry fishing fleets would turn into such a golden fuel supply.

    Side note: having worked for the Feds for 30 years or so, both the fact of corruption or the “appearance” of such is a court martial or firing offense. So I would think that the President and his DOT, from whom Seattle is begging for $75 million, are gonna be legitimately reluctant to feed an “apparently corrupt” project for which they are already politically reticent?

    C’mon, Jenny, you were a DA, and this is NOT Huey Long’s Louisiana or Richard J. Daley’s Chicago.

  5. It’s time to stop this fixed mode of transportation. Smaller buses running frequently with flexible routing, could make a big difference. And without question, the rails make bike riding more difficult and dangerous.

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