Why Is Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan Playing Games with Transit?

Photo: The Urbanist
Photo: The Urbanist

There’s an alarming transit drama playing out right now in Seattle.

New Mayor Jenny Durkan is considering killing a nearly shovel-ready transit project that many experts think is critical for the city’s continued progress in boosting transit ridership.

Durkan has singled out the Center City Connector, a 15-block streetcar project, for possible cancellation. The project was planned to connect two short existing streetcar routes: the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars. Neither line has had stellar ridership, but a third line that connects them is expected to greatly improve the usefulness of the system and boost ridership considerably.

Seattle is one of the few cities in the country that has grown transit ridership, and reduced solo car commuting, even as the economy has rebounded and gas prices have been low. And Seattle residents are invested. The region passed a $50 billion transit measure in 2016 that will add 62 miles to its light rail system.

Part of the reason Seattle has been so successful at managing the cars coming into its center city is necessity. The downtown has added more than 45,000 jobs in the last seven years. And the streets are near capacity.

That’s one way the Center City Connector can help, supporters say. It can move more people through the crowded space than cars.

There have been some high-profile streetcar projects in other cities — hello, Atlanta! — have not lived up to expectations. But the Center City Streetcar avoids some of the pitfalls of those lines: it will run on dedicated lanes in the center of the street, will add to a larger 3.8-mile network and will run every five minutes.

But Durkan has said she’s looking at a bus route instead — though that could squander $90 million that’s already been committed to the project.

The saga goes back to March, when a $23-million shortfall was discovered, and Durkan halted the project and hired the accounting firm KPMG to evaluate the project. The results of the KPMG review were dropped late Friday — a sign, some have said, that the mayor was trying to bury the result.

And here’s why: Yes, costs had jumped by $50 million, bringing the project to an estimated $252 million on the high end. But the firm largely agreed that the full line would be well used, with 18,700 to 22,000 daily weekday passengers. Urbanist reports that KPMG predicts the line could even be operationally profitable once it opens, something that is very unusual for American transit lines, which almost all rely on an operating subsidy.

Durkan hasn’t made a final decision yet about the project. A spokesman told Curbed that the mayor will consider the project from a number of angles over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, delays are adding to projects costs. Seattle Transit Blog says foot-dragging as contributed an estimated $8 million to the project’s costs.

Too much delay may even threaten the project altogether. Under President Trump, the U.S. DOT has slowed the process of releasing federal funds practically to a halt. There’s no guarantee that if the project was restarted again from the planning phase, federal support would be forthcoming.

Durkan’s hostility to the project seems to go past just fiscal concerns. Earlier this summer she made a misleading claim — nevertheless parroted by the media — that the trains chosen for the project would not fit the tracks.

And some of her other early moves as mayor have been disappointing from a transit perspective. She appears, for example, to have put the kibosh on an exciting public-private partnership that would have helped improve bus stops, using ad revenue.

  • Reuben

    As a former Seattleite, I believe the money for the Center City Connector is better spent on other transportation projects. The SLU line is extremely unreliable during rush hour due to Mercer Madness completely blocking streetcar access. Don’t get me started on the First Hill line. Lets stop this push for streetcars and push for transit that people will actually use. Is the capacity boost for streetcar vs articulated bus really worth all the capital costs?

  • Augsburg

    Jenny is right. The cost of the streetcar project has become too enormous for the benefits derived. Seattle could benefit more from increased bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Unfortunately, streetcar tracks are very dangerous for cyclists, as in the U.S. they do not use the kind of rails used in Europe – which are less likely to trap bike tires. The traditional streetcar solution needs to be updated. Trackless streetcars are already in existence and avoid the danger tracks pose to bicyclists, and much of the cost (i.e., the cost of laying tracks and high voltage overhead electrical lines).

  • RyanPacker

    The federal dollars are not there for any alternative to the Center City Connector, and the political will is not present to allocate the dedicated right-of-way. The independent consultant report confirmed the high ridership numbers that prove this project is the right one at the right time.

  • Pangrle

    It’s nice to see that there’s some attention coming to our mayor’s anti-transit actions from outside Seattle. The CCC is Seattle’s first streetcar project that actually makes sense,
    so of course Jenny Durkan has been trying to bury the report confirming that. Her efforts to delay and increase the cost of the CCC are shameful and in
    stark contrast to the views she claimed to espouse prior to getting
    elected. Unfortunately I wouldn’t expect anything out of Seattle’s City Council to fix it, as they’re more obsessed with illegally spot downzoning blocks downtown and coming up with unpopular regressive taxation schemes.

  • Lack of common sense is very dangerous for cyclists.

  • We really need to remove bicycle safety
    from the argument of the streetcar. Cyclists getting stuck in streetcar rails is comedy, not a project-killing problem. If we were talking about children falling from their bicycles then I would take this argument seriously. But when you learn how to ride a bike you also learn how NOT to ride a bike. Nothing takes the place of Common Sense. So let’s remove this issue from the list of excuses people are bringing up as to why not to expand rail transit in a area that needs it – an area that’s been promised it. More than once have I got my wheels stuck in streetcar rails, and not any of those times did I blame the rails; I blamed myself.

  • Augsburg

    The ongoing injury and death of cyclists in America as a result of poorly designed streetcar systems is no joke. The biggest danger to cyclists are the inexperienced and un-informed public, including the uneducated designers of streetcar infrastructure. They’ll tell the cyclist to “learn how to cross the streetcar tracks”, like they believe that is the danger. The real danger comes from tracks running parallel to travel lanes on busy city streets. Cars, trucks and buses often cut a bicyclist off and force them to veer to avoid a collision. That’s when the the cyclist gets a tire caught in the streetcar tracks. Seattle has had at least one death from streetcar tracks and many serious injuries. It is certainly not funny, when this happens.

  • Tom

    “Lets stop this push for streetcars and push for transit that people will actually use.” As noted in the article, ridership is projected between 18,700 to 22,000 daily weekday passengers. I take the First Hill streetcar frequently and would love to have it connect all the way to Pike Place.
    Just because you may not use it doesn’t mean other people won’t.

  • GS12

    Yeah, this is a streetcar investment that actually makes sense for Seattle, and would make the previous stubs much better as well. I appreciate that Mayor Durkan wanted to do more study, but at this the report clearly indicates that the CCC would have very high ridership and would be more than worth the investment (especially when considering the federal dollars allocated to help pay for it).

  • Andres Salomon
  • Absolutely not. We MUST take responsibility for our own actions. Nobody needs the government to hold anyone’s hands. Like I said before, when I fall off my bike (which does happen from time to time), I blame myself. This “cyclist safety” argument seems to be a distraction from solving the real problem. Nowhere else in the country is this bike issue such a big problem. What’s Seattle’s excuse?

  • Andres Salomon

    What gets me about all of this isn’t the “should or shouldn’t we?” about the streetcar project. What gets me is Durkan refusing to take a position on it while simultaneous scaling back other bike/ped/transit projects, not bothering to hire a permanent DOT Director (it’s been 11 months since she took office!), putting out false statements to the media, and basically doing everything she can to drive the media narrative that the streetcar project should be canceled while throwing more taxpayer money at it. It just reeks of poor leadership.

  • ?

  • Reuben

    Explain to me why a $142 million project ($134 2016 dollars ) that has a ridership of 3500 people per day needs a dime extra being spent with the C line costing $48 million ($32 2012 dollars) getting `17.4k riders per day. Just because the federal government is pay for a portion of the project, does mean it is free. The mayor is making the right move. I don’t see an advantage to building the CCC as opposed to restricted lanes for buses.

    Source: https://www.seattlepi.com/local/transportation/article/First-Hill-Streetcar-3764490.php
    https://seattlestreetcar.org/about/ridership-report/
    https://seattletransitblog.com/2012/06/09/rapidride-e-and-f-cost-breakdown/
    http://sdotblog.seattle.gov/2018/01/03/a-closer-look-at-seattles-rising-transit-ridership/

  • Marek B.

    Biggest cities in Netherlands have huge streetcar systems and it doesn’t seem to hinder Netherlands from being a fantastic place to ride a bike.

  • Don’t forget that Durkan also stalled, arguably cancelled, the downtown Basic Bike Network, forcing Council to pass a unanimous resolution instructing SDOT to complete the downtown network by end of 2019.

    I think the most important thing to note is that since Durkan was previously a US Attorney, for security reasons she is driven everywhere at state taxpayer expense. She never takes transit, never bicycles, probably rarely walks as well. She literally has the most extreme case of windshield blindness possible and state taxpayers are paying for it. Is it any surprise she is cutting bicycle and #transit projects to prioritize private automobiles during Seattle’s upcoming Period of Maximum Constraint when all the buses come out of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel to run on surface streets while many construction projects, including the Washington State Convention Center expansion are further disrupting mobility for all? Is it any surprised her first Interim SDOT Director was fram Car City Bellevue (this is where all the energy behind Adaptive Signals came from BTW – Bellevue loves their Adaptive Signals) and her second Interim Director is from WSDOT Hwy 99 tunnel boondoggle?

    https://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2018/03/20/dont-delay-the-downtown-bike-network/
    https://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2018/07/16/help-push-to-get-the-downtown-bike-network-back-on-track-in-2019/
    https://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2018/07/31/cm-mosqueda-delivers-must-watch-speech-as-council-approves-downtown-bike-lane-resolution/
    https://seattle.curbed.com/2018/8/28/17791872/seattle-sdot-transportation-interim-director

  • Louis

    Wait a second, you’re criticizing a mayor who finally has enough of valuable transit dollars being wasted on getting affluent white people around downtown and ignoring the disabled, senior, youth, minority, and poor people who rely on transit to get around mostly now the poor suburbs? Why do affluent white people need a streetcar? They have taxis, Lyft, Uber, Uber pool, and oh, wait, wait for it, wait, wait for it, CARS!!!!!! So parking is expensive. Affluent white problems. Meanwhile, valuable transit funding is being moved away from those who truly need it and are the most vulnerable portion of the population. Streetsblog, you’re a gentrification and streetcar affluent white blog that cares about high parking costs for your stupid luxury cars. Meanwhile, poor disabled people worry about having no access or expensive access to healthcare because their bus route was cut to fund this stupid streetcar for rich white folk who want to keep their Mercedes at home.

  • You sound bitter. Now go away

  • Anthony

    This is an extraordinarily simplistic view of what this project is and who it serves. Mayor Durkan is exploring a bus-only replacement. The main cost difference between a streetcar and bus service is the utility re-location, which is already being done/paid for and was necessary anyway since these were over 100-year old wooden pipes that are being replaced along 1st Ave. Both projects, a bus and streetcar, would have dedicated right of way, all door boarding, real-time info, but the streetcar would have rails. The difference in cost between a streetcar and bus is covered by the federal participation.

    Pinpointing that this is a giveaway to affluent white people ignores the direct connection between many of the city’s affordable homes on Yesler Terrace and International District to hourly wage jobs along 1st Avenue. It also provides a direct connection between Downtown and 1st Hill which has many of the medical facilities available to residents living in the close-in neighborhoods. The mode difference between busses and streetcars is important here because of the level boarding platforms; the time savings and auto mobility of loading a passenger in a wheelchair or with another mobility impairment is improved on a streetcar compared to a bus.

    Changing a one-seat ride to a two-seat ride would not only incur a transfer penalty, and the inconvenience of having to debark the streetcar to get onto a bus (not to mention if you’re going from ID to SLU, yet another transfer at Westlake), but would incur higher operating costs. You need a driver for each vehicle, whether it’s a bus or streetcar. Streetcars hold more passengers more comfortably, and because of the inefficiencies of any transfer at two locations, you’re going to need at least two more drivers for the multi-modal line than you would for a mono-modal line.

    Finishing the streetcar is about as much of a transit slam dunk as you can get from the city’s perspective. Durkan appears to be opposing completion of this project because of the perceived mode bias you reference above. But that bias is simply perceived; If the 1st Hill line and SLU line were busses, I’d be on board with a bus extension connecting the two. It’s not bus vs streetcar in this case, it’s continuing the existing mode to finalize one cohesive project that best serves the residents, employees, and visitors of Downtown.

  • Also this Twitter thread from The Urbanist https://twitter.com/UrbanistOrg/status/1039234854993375233

  • TakeFive

    Good comment. I hope Seattle is treating you well.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Do you say the same thing about other road conditions that lead to collisions? Sure, encourage personal responsibility. But we should also encourage responsibility on the part of people who design infrastructure. If your infrastructure plan will foreseeably lead to a certain number of collisions (whether because wide lanes will encourage speeding or because streetcar tracks will lead some cyclists to get stuck), you should make sure that the benefits it will provide will be worth the harms it causes (even if each of those harms also has a person who is responsible).

    I think every city should be considering cyclists more in designing its infrastructure. But I also think that this streetcar connector in Seattle is one of the very few streetcar projects that is likely to pass cost-benefit analysis, because it connects existing streetcars. In this case, the right approach to streetcar/cyclist conflict is not to kill the streetcar, but just to make sure that there’s adequate facilities for cyclists to avoid the tracks most of the time.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    They also have a huge network of completely separated cycletracks next to the streets and rail lines. If bikes usually aren’t operating in between the tracks, then it’s not very much of an issue. But if bikes and streetcars are both expected to share general traffic lanes (as in many American cities), then it becomes more significant. (Are the Dutch trams usually running in general traffic lanes? I thought they were usually dedicated lanes, but I can’t visually recall at the moment. But in any case, usually bikes aren’t.)

  • Kenny Easwaran

    If we had the opportunity to go back and re-decide whether streetcar was appropriate for SLU and for First Hill, it probably would have made sense to go for buses instead. But now that the streetcar exists in those places, that gives a substantial travel-time and ridership advantage to a connector that allows the streetcars themselves to move between those two lines, rather than just putting a new bus line in. Deciding the new project on the basis of the misspent costs of the old project is committing the sunk cost fallacy – we should evaluate this project on the marginal ridership gains it would produce compared to the new costs it would expend.

  • Exactly. This is not an unsolvable problem. I rode all over Stockholm which is sick with trams and never had a problem. The difference is they don’t compromise on speed of #transit or safety of people to prioritize the speed of one person alone in a 5-8 person explosive metal and glass box.

  • Just wait till you see what roads and highways cost. Never mind street parking.

  • Reuben

    Did I mention anything about more parking or highways?! My argument is simply against streetcars. I think the BRT system is a great achievement for the area. And I know when I say BRT, it is BRT-lite

  • gomer_rs

    Because we shouldn’t want any one using cars. Infrastructure is for the entire income ladder and will never be treated as such unless used by the entire income ladder.

    Why Social Security is more sound then food stamps or TANF.

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