The downtown connector streetcar project concept has been bantered about for well over a decade. Renewed interest at Seattle’s Department of Transportation and at Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office and City Council should lead to an honest reassessment and a new environmental impact statement.
To those government stewards, I ask one simple favor: Give it to us straight. Facts and truthful assessments, please. Help us gain confidence in information you provide. So far, visions are vague, titillating, and unconvincing. But unbiased granular and accurate detail are what citizens need to understand impacts from costly projects that will affect us for decades.
We haven’t been given these facts yet. We were told in 2014 the connector streetcar capital costs would be $110 million, which ballooned to $286 million five years later. Still quoted, that new number fails to account for the last four and a half years of high inflation. We await the real number. Further, we know that ongoing operating and maintenance costs are about 50% higher than for buses, so what are realistic annual operating loss projections ten years out?
Ridership is another area needing candor. The rider count has consistently failed to reach rosy projections on the First Hill (FH) and South Lake Union (SLU) lines. SLU has actually seen ridership decline since its inception in 2007, despite the surge of employment and new apartments in the area over that period. Notably, the addition of the RapidRide C line caused streetcar ridership to plummet about 10 years ago, so it’s reasonable to ask what other future lines will trim streetcar ridership. FH line ridership actually perked up in 2017, but that was due to new connections to RapidRide and light rail lines, where the FH line shares revenue allocations.
System-wide streetcar ridership projections are from 5,500 passengers per day recently, to 22,000-25,000 in the first full year of a connected system. Wow, that’s impressive! But that requires the current average passenger count of 20 per full line run to balloon to 130-147. That’s for every run, at 12-minute intervals, 17 hours a day (both more frequent and for more hours than now). Fewer than that range would cause ridership to come up short of projections. Those elevated levels, however, would be similar to the Manhattan subway line 6 at rush hour, but for all morning, afternoon and night. Is that even possible? With the rise of Uber and electric bikes, and more workers working remotely? Those numbers would require that all 40 seats be perpetually filled with many more than 40 riders standing.
Given these rosy projections, the connector recently shifted its branding to being a “cultural connector.” Really? I rode the FH line on a sunny July 1 Saturday, arriving at 3 pm at the Jackson Street station near T-Mobile Park, before a 4:30 Mariners game. Five people got off. Where were the fans, I wondered? Would the full-line connector fix that? And what if someone from the most populous area of Capitol Hill chooses to go from their apartment to Climate Pledge Arena for a big-star rock show or witness the Kraken crunch the Canucks? Following a 5-10 minute walk to the terminus, an average 6-minute wait for the streetcar to depart, a 45-50 minute ride (I’m telling you, it’s slow), then a half-mile, 20-minute walk, voila! You made it to the show in 1 hour and 20 minutes. (Better to Uber or e-scoot?)
What if instead, you wanted to go to the Paramount, ACT, or 5th Avenue Theater? It will take you 15 minutes on foot, compared to a 55-minute walk and streetcar ride combo jaunt. Why should the city plunk down $1 million requested by Mayor Harrell for a delivery assessment on the (dis)connector, now rebranded as “cultural”?
Next, regarding commercial impact, how would the Showbox Theater on First Ave. load shows or be serviced by commercial vehicles, with parking gone and three traffic lanes eliminated along most of narrow First Ave.? (By chopper, perchance?) Would the beloved Showbox’s survival be threatened? How many other businesses in the iconic Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market districts would face the same squeeze? How many do you expect would fail simply due to the connector’s disruptive construction? And how long would the project really take? Judging by the Madison St. project fiasco, 3 years? 4 years?
Another area demanding straight talk is public safety. Perhaps the most extensive study completed on streetcar and bus safety was done by the German insurance industry GDV, covering over 4,000 accidents in 58 cities during 2009-2011. It concluded that streetcars were 4.8 times more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than buses over similar distances, and that 85% of deaths were pedestrians. Serious injuries were 75% more frequent. Configurations with center-loading stations and 2-4 lanes, similar to the connector design, were the most dangerous, according to the study.
Is it possible to accurately forecast incremental pedestrian deaths caused by the connector in this, the busiest pedestrian corridor in the city? What about two-wheelers? They don’t take nicely to steel rail tracks, and accident rates can be high. Toronto determined that one-third of its bicycle accidents are related to streetcars, primarily from getting caught in the tracks. And what about those two tight 90-degree angle turns at Jackson and Stewart streets? Could these new streetcars, almost a third of a football field in length, really make those turns safely, crossing traffic lanes and bike and pedestrian paths? Or do advocates believe that your “vision” trumps public safety?
Another vexed area is whether these streetcars would be climate-friendly, as claimed. What about the impact of destroying large shade trees in Pioneer Square? Adding millions of pounds of carbon to the atmosphere during construction? Would electric buses be deployed with a lesser carbon footprint?
Most of us are fans of “Space Needle thinking,” as heralded by Mayor Harrell. I get it. But a 39-ton machine rolling slowly down rail tracks (with a cute little ringing bell) hardly screams “Space Needle thinking.” All 30 trolley rail lines that were running in Seattle in 1939 vanished by the end of the century except for one along Alaska Way, scrapped soon after. Cause of death of the trolley lines? Ridership and costs, familiarly enough.
So please, give us straight answers and critical thinking to these questions. Give us reasons to trust you to be thorough, unbiased, and truthful — especially given past miscalculations and hazy platitudes. Give us integrity in your messaging. And if you are not firmly committed to that rigor, it’s high time to get real and nix the deal!