One Question

One Question About the Streetcar for Council Member Nick Licata

One question for city council member Nick Licata, who was the lone "No" vote yesterday against the First Hill streetcar plan.

July 22, 2014

One Question

City council member Nick Licata was the lone "No" vote against a council resolution that approved a First Avenue as the "locally preferred alternative" to connect the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars and endorsed efforts to seek federal funding to help pay for the estimated $110 million project. 

In voting against the resolution, Licata cited the high cost of building fixed-rail streetcars, and said he believed that electric buses might be able to fill the supposed downtown "gap" between the two streetcars for less money, and just as efficiently, as a fixed-rail streetcar line.

Streetcar proponents argue that the proposal would offer faster travel times (because streetcars would operate in exclusive, transit-only lanes), that a single streetcar line connecting First Hill to South Lake Union offers more predictability than a streetcar-to-bus-to-streetcar connection, and that streetcars create a sense of permanence and predictability, qualities that help local businesses and encourage visitors to hop aboard.

I asked Licata today to explain why he voted against the streetcar. His response boiled down to three main arguments: Streetcars eat up transit money that could be spent elsewhere; transit funds shouldn't be used for economic development projects; and the streetcar route itself, once completed, won't do a good job of serving most people who come downtown. "I think this is somewhat a legacy of the McGinn Administration. They made promises [about the First Ave. streetcar]. That’s how you create false expectations. That’s how you build political momentum for something that may not in fact be the best use of funds."

The analysis [that led to the choice of the First Ave. streetcar as the preferred option] pretty much disregarded the trolley buses [that is, buses on wires—as opposed to fixed-rail transit like streetcars] right off. One of the arguments is that in fact probably their strongest argument is that the trains have greater capacity. They can carry not quite, but almost, twice as many folks as a trolley bus. So you can fill up trains and you need fewer of them. That's probably a legitimate argument. But you have to balance that against, what are the capital costs, which are phenomenally larger. That's one of the reasons I supported the First Hill trolley buses [which will connect First Hill to Sound Transit light rail on Capitol Hill.]

The big argument for fixed-rail trolleys is that there’s a psychological impact. People feel more comfortable taking them. But they’re not quicker, by any means. They're going to be primarily for shoppers on First Avenue. They probably will encourage more economic development for small retail shops. That’s a good thing. But that’s not a transportation solution, that’s an economic development plan.

The question is, if we have limited transportation dollars, shouldn’t we be looking at how we provide transportation, not economic development? If the federal government gave away grants for economic development, then go for it, but this is a grant for transit.

You could have a dedicated lane for a trolley bus as easily as you could for fixed rail. You could get rid of the parking on First Avenue for a trolley as easily as you could for fixed rail. 
The strongest argument for the First Avenue streetcar, quite honestly, is that you can see and touch it. You can’t see and touch all these various [bus] lines out there. No one cuts a ribbon on fixing potholes, because it's boring.

We know that we’re facing huge cuts to Metro. Even if the Metro ballot initative"The question is, if we have limited transportation dollars, shouldn’t we be looking at how we provide transportation, not economic development?" passes, according to Metro themselves we are still going to be facing service that is shrinking in light of the demand. I’m not a planner, but I would say, look, where’s the demand and let’s meet that demand. I know from talking to folks in the South End, they are arguing that they had routes that were cut back and they'd like to see those routes reestablished.

I think this is somewhat a legacy of the McGinn Administration. [Former mayor Mike McGinn was a major proponent of the First Ave. streetcar]. They made promises [about the First Ave. streetcar]. It wasn’t the council. The council has never been on record saying [we support a] streetcar. That’s how you create false expectations. That’s how you build political momentum for something that may not in fact be the best use of funds. You have to think of the entire transportation network. Don’t focus on little bits and piece and isolated fragments.

If I’m on Capitol Hill, let’s say Denny and Broadway, think about it: Am I going to take the No. 10 downtown, or am I going to go all the way through the through ID at a slow pace and head back up downtown through Pioneer Square? Look at where most people are going. They're not going to First Hill or the ID. They’re going downtown.

During our conversation, I took off my reporter's hat for a second (it's a pillbox) to push back a bit on Licata's contention that we shouldn't spend transit dollars on economic development. After all, we spend transit dollars to encourage residential development—building transit and new residential units in tandem, AKA transit-oriented development—so why not economic development too? The more stores and restaurants and hotels there are, the more people will come to a neighborhood, and the more successful transit will be. A transportation plan can be just a transportation plan, but it can also be so much more. 


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