Residents in Pioneer Square are angry that the city may no longer be able to extend the First Hill streetcar into their neighborhood "as planned." (The city agreed last year to consider extending the streetcar from the Fifth and Jackson transit tunnel station along a loop from that station to Second and Main and back.)
A "Call to Action" on the New Pioneer Square Blog, for example, includes a long list of benefits to the neighborhood and urges residents to write their city council members and Mayor Mike McGinn telling them "how important the streetcar is to this neighborhood, and that we’re tired of the city breaking its promises."
The only thing is, the city never "promised" Pioneer Square it would build the streetcar to their neighborhood. In fact, according to city staff, the city only told the neighborhood it would try to extend the streetcar to the neighborhood---if, and only if, it could meet its contractual obligation to Sound Transit to keep the streetcar on ten-minute headways (the period riders must wait between trains) and to keep costs below the $123 million Sound Transit agreed to provide under an interlocal agreement with the city (which will actually build the streetcar).
According to the current design (which, at 90 percent completion, is pretty solid), the streetcar could only achieve 11 1/2 minute headways for the amount Sound Transit will pay (which, at 90 percent cost estimation, is also pretty solid). Spending more, or going with longer than 10-minute headways, would violate the contract.
Jen Kelly, an organizer with the Pioneer Square Residential Council, says Sound Transit should be "more flexible" with its headway requirements and improve headways once more money is available in the future. "We feel like it's just another thing that is negative for the neighborhood, particularly with all of the impacts that we're going to get hit with during viaduct construction," Kelly says. "Budget is budget, but it's frustrating to be on our side of the problem."
Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick says both the city and the transit agency agree that once headways increase beyond 10 minutes, "You start to get outside what you would expect for an urban streetcar and you set people up for frustration. As for spending more money to extend the streetcar, he says, "In the context of our own budget in the recession, including a 25 percent blow to Sound Transit II finances overall ... there's not a lot of financial flexibility to increase scope."
However, the city hasn't entirely scuttled plans to extend the streetcar to Pioneer Square. If voters pass the $60 car-tab fee in November, some of that funding---a total of about $20 million a year---could go to pay for the streetcar extension. Although the city has not yet hammered out what specific projects the fee would fund, it has agreed to spend $10 million (49 percent) for transit-related improvements.
The city will know for sure what the streetcar will cost, and what kind of headways it can provide, in mid-October.