Apr 6, 2023 - News

Inertia surrounds downtown Seattle streetcar

A yellow streetcar runs along a track with an older building in the background.

The First Hill Streetcar ends near First Avenue and Jackson Street. A new line could change that. Photo: Melissa Santos/Axios

For the past seven years, Seattle has had two streetcar lines that ping pong between different neighborhoods, never meeting. Now, almost a decade after the Seattle City Council approved a plan to bridge the disconnected routes, it remains unclear if the project will ever happen.

Why it matters: Supporters of building the Center City Connector streetcar line say the project would help connect visitors to Seattle's many cultural offerings, from the art museum downtown to restaurants in the International District to live music in Capitol Hill.

Yes, but: Critics question whether the streetcar is the best way to spend limited transportation dollars — especially when the city is facing a budget shortfall and downtown is already served by buses and light rail.

Catch up quick: The Center City Connector would run along First Avenue and link the First Hill and the South Lake Union streetcar lines, which right now leave a roughly 1.3-mile gap downtown.

  • Former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan pressed pause on the project in 2018 as cost estimates rose. The city restarted the project a year later, only to call a halt again in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic decimated city revenue projections.

Latest: The delay has gone so long that a recent federal audit suggested that $3.8 million in grant money allocated for the streetcar link should perhaps be taken away, as it "could have been put to better use."

What's happening: Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell told Axios last month that funding for the project remains a hurdle, with about one-third of the money needed still unidentified.

  • The exact shortfall is unknown, as the city has yet to complete an updated feasibility study the City Council approved in late 2021.
  • As of 2019, the city estimated it was at least $65 million short, after the total projected construction cost of the project nearly doubled over four years.
  • The total construction cost was estimated at $285.8 million in 2019, up from $143.2 million in 2015.

What they're saying: Harrell, who supports the streetcar extension, told Axios it has the potential "not just to get someone from A to B," but to connect the soon-to-be-redeveloped waterfront to the city's vibrant and "culturally cool" areas.

The other side: Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the council's transportation committee, recently told Axios there are "already multiple ways to get from point A to point B on that corridor."

  • Pedersen said he thinks there's majority support on the council for completing the project. But with the city's ongoing budget deficit, he's not sure where the money would come from.
  • "With our limited transportation dollars, I think we should be addressing other issues," such as bridge maintenance and traffic safety, he said.

What's next: The updated cost analysis that was originally supposed to be completed last year is now expected to be done by the end of 2023, Ethan Bergerson, spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Transportation, told Axios.

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