Seattle to spend $177M on new streetcar line amid questions about ‘unrealistic’ revenue, rider projections

Seattle is slated to break ground soon on a streetcar line running along First Avenue. Officials say it will provide a crucial link through downtown, but streetcar lines aren’t meeting projections, and critics say the city’s assumptions aren’t realistic.

Your fares cover about 40 percent of operating costs for Sound Transit’s Link light rail. Fares cover about 31 percent of the cost of King County Metro buses. Seattle’s two streetcar lines cover 23 percent of their costs with fares.

But once a streetcar is built along First Avenue in downtown Seattle, the city Department of Transportation (SDOT) expects fares to cover a whopping 56 percent of operating costs for the three lines.

That would be among the highest rates of any transit agency in the country.

And it’s one of a number of optimistic financial projections contained in Seattle’s plans to expand a streetcar system that is performing far below expectations.

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“The financial assumptions are simply unrealistic based on our history with the streetcar,” Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said. “I don’t want a situation where we don’t meet those projections and the result is we end up seeing bus-service hours cut to pay for any shortfall.”

Early next month the city will break ground on the $177 million, 1.2-mile Center City Connector line that will run along First Avenue. When complete — its scheduled opening is 2020 — it will link the city’s two fragmented streetcar lines and connect South Lake Union with downtown and the Chinatown-International District before looping around like a bobby pin to reach First Hill and Capitol Hill.

The city anticipates $83 million from the federal government to help pay for the project, $58 million of which has been approved by Congress. The remaining $94 million will come from local taxes and utility bills.

Previous reports listing the cost at about $152 million did not include the costs of public water and electric utility work.

The new rail lines will run from McGraw Square, at the south end of Westlake Avenue, along Stewart Street and First Avenue, to South Jackson Street. The majority of the line will run in streetcar-only lanes in the center of First Avenue. To make room, 194 parking spots, mostly used in off-peak hours, will be removed.

Once the system is complete, however, it will run in mixed traffic at…

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