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City continues to demand answers on Seattle streetcar

(SDOT)

When Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan halted all streetcar construction in March, she demanded a review of the project and wanted it by June. The public has yet to see the results of that audit, though the mayor has been briefed by contractor KMPG. Questions remain, so the auditor was sent back to answer them.

RELATED: Everett was first to bury its streetcars

In the meantime, the status of the current Seattle streetcar project — connecting two existing lines — remains in limbo. Senior Deputy Mayor Michael Fong wrote as much to the Seattle Streetcar Coalition in a June 28 letter explaining the situation. Fong notes the many issues facing construction that may add up to permanently halting the project. The mayor is even looking into other transit options, instead of the City Center Connector project.

“As part of this briefing, the mayor asked for further analysis on technical assumptions, ridership projections, operations and capital costs, funding options, as well as more detailed information for additional alternatives for providing transit connections moving forward,” Fong wrote.

The mayor expanded on this in a recent interview, saying the project may never be completed.

“That still might not happen, we are looking at options,” Mayor Durkan told KUOW. “There may be other options available to connect those two things, that won’t be a continuous route.”

It’s not the first time such sentiment has come from city hall. In April, Interim Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation Goran Sparrman told the city council that it could take until October to determine if the Seattle streetcar project can continue.

“Frankly, this is an example of probably … how a project perhaps should not have been managed,” Sparrman said at the time. “And council should be aware that I’m looking at project management overall inside the department.”

City Center Connector

The City Center Connector project aims to link together two existing Seattle streetcar lines — South Lake Union at one end and Capitol Hill/First Hill at the other. It’s a 1.2-mile track through the heart of Seattle. But as the project’s costs continued to surge, the mayor hit the brakes in March.

Mayor Durkan recently told KUOW that she wants the auditor to look further into issues, beyond the numbers.

“For example, one of the things we know is that the new streetcars, as designed, are longer than the current ones we have, and heavier,” Durkan said. “They won’t fit in the maintenance barns, for example, we are not sure if they will fit on the gauge of rail that’s there.”

Letter to Seattle Streetcar Coalition

Mayor Durkan has also noted how the construction could affect businesses in the area. In his letter to the Seattle Streetcar Coalition, Fong said:

Since taking office, Mayor Durkan has met and heard from several Pioneer Square businesses regarding transportation challenges downtown, especially as it relates to the streetcar. She has heard about the real disruption to the neighborhood and the toll that construction has taken on residents and businesses. She has many concerns about both the fiscal impacts as well as the impacts on businesses.

Durkan has also said she wants fresh ridership estimates to determine how many people the Seattle streetcar will actually move.

Seattle streetcar costs

As The Seattle Times reported, SDOT continues to struggle with streetcar operating costs. Seattle’s 2017 streetcar budget was $500,000 short in the end, primarily due to the South Lake Union line. The streetcars were originally budgeted for $6.2 million that year.

In total, SDOT overspent by $1.6 million in 2017. The city says that it had difficulty hiring engineers and other staff for Move Seattle projects, and that led to the overrun. Also, budget forecasts were not tight enough. The city council has passed legislation to retroactively approve paying off the over-budget costs.

This was just the most recent funding woe that SDOT and the Seattle streetcar have faced, however.

  • The City Center Connector project was originally estimated to cost $150 million. But that was updated to $177 million in 2017.
  • In March 2018, the streetcar project bill was again updated to more than $200 million — a $23 million shortfall.
  • King County Metro also pointed out in March 2018 that SDOT’s streetcar budget was short by about $8 million, or 50 percent.

Fong wrote in his letter that the mayor has also asked city departments to double check their project numbers.

… the Mayor asked for a final technical review by City departments including City Budget Office, SDOT, Seattle Public Utilities, and Seattle City Light to verify material costs and labor, utility relocations, and project timelines for a series of options to ensure the final report is accurate for taxpayers.

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