The C Is for Crank

Seattle Transit Blog's Ben Schiendelman and I are having a wonky blog fight about Mayor Mike McGinn's proposal to spend $2 million to study a streetcar on Eastlake. Ben argues that an at-grade streetcar on Eastlake should be the city's highest transit-planning priority right now. 

I disagree, and so does the city council; they indicated they will delay spending the $2 million in McGinn's proposed budget that he'd put toward studying high-capacity transit on Eastlake for one year. Instead, the council has indicated that it plans to spend the money on other transit priorities.

That makes sense to me. Given finite resources, and a nearly infinite list of needed fixes to the city's transportation system, (accelerating the long-underfunded bike master plan, adding sidewalks to the city's north end, and improving bus service on some of Metro's most overcrowded routes), the city has to prioritize. That's what budgeting is about.Given finite resources, and a nearly infinite list of needed fixes to the city's transportation system, the city has to prioritize.

Proponents of rail on Eastlake point out that a rail line there is included in the Transit Master Plan. That's true—but so are hundreds of millions of dollars in other unfunded, and worthy, projects. If we could fund every priority in the plan, I'd be thrilled, but planning is aspirational, and budgets often come down to triage.

(Importantly, no one is suggesting that the money should be spent on roads; the debate here is between planning a streetcar on Eastlake and other non-vehicular transportation modes.)

Ben accuses me of "planning with anecdotes" and "armchair planning," then offers up a favorite anecdote of his own: Two city council members, Bruce Harrell and Tim Burgess, could run against the mayor next year. Therefore, the delay must be a concerted effort by the council "to keep him from having an election year success."

Really? If the mayor's success or failure in next year's election hinges on the delay of $2 million in transportation planning dollars while the council looks at other transit fixes, he's in more trouble than I thought. The council may not like the mayor. But that's hardly a phenomenon unique to this mayor, or this council. Council-mayor divisiveness is a built-in part of Seattle politics, not a grand conspiracy against McGinn. 

(The Stranger's Slog picked up on my debate with Ben yesterday, taking Ben's side. Meanwhile, Ben's colleague at STB, Bruce Nourish, took mine.)

Since I love nothing more than a good transit debate, here are some more reasons I don't think an Eastlake streetcar that would share space with car traffic along much of its route—is the best use of the city's limited transportation dollars. 

Proponents say we must build a trolley, not a bus-rapid transit line, because rail, according to the city's projections, would carry 25,000 riders a day. While that is certainly what the city's modeling shows, just 10,000 of those would be new riders. The remaining 15,000 would consist of existing Metro riders who switch to the trolley.

Among those existing riders: People who currently ride the 70 on Eastlake, which would be eliminated and replaced by the trolley, and people who use the South Lake Union streetcar, whose service would be "integrated" in to the new streetcar line. 

Moreover, the city's modeling includes the entire corridor from Roosevelt in Northeast Seattle to downtown—which is one reason I don't think it's false, as Ben has suggested, to say that the line partly duplicates the planned Link light rail line from downtown to Roosevelt through the University District (not to mention the express buses that run from the downtown transit tunnel to the U District along I-5).

The estimated cost for the proposed Eastlake trolley is $278 million—more than three times as much as a BRT line (and at a higher operating cost per mile). Once it's up and running, the city itself estimates that BRT would cost $2.55 per ride over time, compared to $2.75 per mile for the trolley. 

Under the city's transit master plan, rail would run less frequently—every eight minutes during peak periods, compared to every 5 minutes for bus rapid transit, and every 10 minutes during off-peak periods, compared to every 7.5 minutes for bus rapid transit. 

Finally, about that support from bicyclists. True: The city's bike community (specifically, Cascade Bicycle Club) has joined in supporting the Eastlake option, on the assumption that it will include significant bike infrastructure (such as cycle tracks). While I certainly share that hope—Eastlake is a scary place to ride, with riders basically unprotected from passing cars—neighborhood residents tend to haul out the pitchforks when advocates suggest that the side of the road might be used for something other than storing their cars. 

Dig even deeper into the wonkery in the comments over at STB; Bruce's post (which links back to Ben's) is a good place to start.