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January 14, 2008

Opinion: More streetcars? Not everyone is on board

Seattle City Council


Last week, the transportation committee had a briefing from SDOT, city-hired consultant Marni Heffron, the Seattle Streetcar Alliance and Anne Vernez Moudon, a consultant to them from the University of Washington Urban Form Lab. All presenters were in agreement that the expansion of a streetcar system would benefit Seattle.

The context of the meeting seemed to be that council has made up its mind that we are going forward with a streetcar network and it is just a matter of choosing the best next route. While we may want to do that, we should not just assume that to be our course of action, because we have not identified how to pay for operating such a network.

The April 2007 report, done for the Urban League and the Seattle Streetcar Alliance, both proponents of expanding the streetcar system, surveyed possible funding sources for operations and maintenance. It noted that fares pick up less than 20 percent of those costs. The remainder is generally picked up by the operator. In this instance, that would be King County, which is currently operating the South Lake Union streetcar. But King County spends our money — not theirs — for this cost. They subtract funds that would go to our bus system to pay for the streetcar and would presumably do so for any future streetcars.

Projecting future operating costs is not simple. Originally the operating costs for the SLU streetcar were estimated to be 9,200 bus hours (each bus hour equals so many dollars the city receives from King County to operate their buses in Seattle) and now the estimate is 16,800 hours, an 80 percent increase over two years.

The Heffron report noted that “streetcars are compatible with the Seattle Transit Plan, compatible with UVTN (the Urban Village Transit Network), and well suited to meet the goal (established within them) of ‘15 minutes service, 18 hours per day, seven days per week.'” What the report did not mention was of the 61 transit corridors that serve our transit network linking urban villages, less than half have bus service that meets this goal. And only 11 of the corridors provide service more than 16 hours a day. In other words, we are not meeting our transit goals city-wide.

The question that council must ask SDOT is: How will the city meet those goals and how will devoting more revenue to operating additional streetcars affect that objective?

The reports mention that people take streetcars because they are more reliable than buses. That may be true. Less than 30 percent of our buses on our most critical transit corridors meet our reliability goals. Shouldn't we be addressing that problem before we pursue major capital costs of laying tracks and assuming ongoing operational costs for additional streetcars?

Here is the problem I think we must address: The Seattle Streetcar Alliance consists mostly of both property owners and community representatives who stand to gain through increased property values or increased transit service from an addition of a streetcar line to their neighborhood. For them, the addition of streetcars is definitely a win situation.

But the vast majority of transit riders take the bus now and will in the future. Fixed rail lines like Sound Transit and streetcars do offer options, but they will not be carrying a significant percentage of transit riders. So where is the organization representing the majority of transit riders? There is none. They only have one institution to look out for their interests and that is local government.

If we do not ask ourselves how citizens throughout Seattle will be better served by investing more public funds in creating a streetcar network, no one else will. It is not a question easily asked given the attraction of streetcars, but it must be asked before we succumb to their charm regardless of their cost.

Nick Licata is a member of the Seattle City Council and can be reached at nick.licata@seattle.gov or at (206) 684-8803. This article first appeared in his electronic newsletter.

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