Sent March 2, 2010

Mayor McGinn,
This note considers the ST2 First Hill Streetcar. Please excuse its length, but there are several aspects to this puzzle.

You may soon recommend an alignment to the Council. Last week, SDOT recommended an alignment to you (reported by the Capitol Hill blog).

Please consider seeking agreement with the Council to ask Sound Transit (ST) to cancel and substitute. Seattle could ask that the same ST2 funds be used for substitute capital and service improvements to the electric trolleybus network.

ST owes Seattle the most First Hill transit mobility we can get for its ST2 funds (e.g., about $132 million in capital and $5.2 million per year in service subsidy). The First Hill streetcar is clearly a risky and suboptimal transit investment. There is also no doubt streetcars are neat and many want them. But their cost and effectiveness are key questions, especially in hilly urban centers.

Though it may be afforded for the funds available, there may be costs and risks not yet fully assessed. Please consider the following. They will impact its feasibility.

  1. Will the Pioneer Square loop impact the area ways under South Jackson Street? Will it be costly to reconstruct that street?
  2. Will the Pioneer Square loop, by extending through the intersections of South Jackson Street with 2nd Avenue Extension South and 4th Avenue South, reduce the transit capacity of those intersections? The transit capacity of downtown Seattle is limited and should be carefully preserved until Link is extended to Northgate and NE 45th Street in about 2020, allowing north Seattle bus routes to be restructured. The SR-99 deep bore construction will disrupt transit and downtown traffic during the next several years.
  3. Will either the Pioneer Square or International District turn around loops reduce the transit capacity of 5th Avenue South and South Jackson Street used by several key transit flows (e.g., all electric trolleybus deadhead routes, routes 7, 14, and 36, I-90 routes, and SR-520 routes)?
  4. If the First Hill streetcar will stop in the center lanes of South Jackson Street, that would seem to suggest that South Jackson Street will be restriped to provide the streetcar platforms. It now has five lanes between 8th and 12th avenues South and four lanes with parallel parking between 5th and 8th avenues South. Except at Maynard Avenue South, buses stop in-lane. Will the number of lanes be reduced? Will the trolleybus routes, that carry many more riders than the streetcar is forecasted to attract, be slowed by the reconfiguration of South Jackson Street? What of any signal priority provided the streetcar for its outbound left turn to 14th Avenue South from South Jackson Street? Will its green time slow Rainier Avenue South traffic and the other transit routes?
  5. How much will transit service be disrupted by construction of the track, stations, and new overhead? When the SLU line was constructed, Westlake and Terry avenues were relatively empty streets. In the case of the First Hill line, South Jackson Street and Broadway are critical arterials with significant traffic and transit volumes. How much will be spent moving the trolleybus overhead back and forth during construction?
  6. Even if the streetcars have batteries to travel through the complex electric trolleybus intersections at 5th and 12th avenues South and at Jefferson, Madison, Union, Pine, and John streets, how much disruption will be there be to transit flow? Will more riders be slowed than are attracted to the slow and indirect streetcar? Here is a link to the SDOT report on the difficulties of the modal interface.

The ST2 funds to be devoted to the First Hill streetcar are substantial and have high opportunity cost. They are not third party funds from Mars. Seattle represents about 90 percent of the ST West subarea population (Washington State OFM figures, April 2009). The same taxpayers support Seattle, the West subarea of ST, and the West subarea of Metro; the funds pass through different governments.