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New Seattle streetcars may be too big for city’s existing tracks

(SDOT)

One city project has gone further off the rails and the city seeks further information to bring it back on track. The new Seattle streetcars may not fit on the city’s existing rail lines.

That heavy fact is among a handful of details from independent auditor KPMG. Its initial report on the Seattle streetcar system has raised more questions than answers.

Mayor Jenny Durkan halted all construction on the City Center Connector Project in March after it became apparent that costs were over-budget by $23 million. The project aims to connect separate streetcar lines in South Lake Union and First Hill with a new line through the downtown core. But the streetcars for that connection are quite different than the ones Seattle already uses.

RELATED: Mayor Durkan hints at streetcar woes to come

The city has since hired auditor KPMG to assess the construction project. The final report from KPMG is expected in August, but initial findings state that the new Seattle streetcars — which the city has already purchased for the to-be-constructed line — are much longer, wider, and heavier than the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars. It could also mean that the streetcars Seattle currently uses may not operate on the new line the city wants to build.

The mayor’s office says that the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars are compatible, although they are different specs. According to the mayor’s office:

The street cars that were ordered are longer, wider, and heavier. As a result, complex technical and engineering questions have been raised and a more detailed engineering review is critical to understanding the cost and feasibility of the project … The engineering review will help determine if the streetcars are compatible with the track gauge and a host of other questions as well.

In a July 20 email from Councilmember Lisa Herbold titled “Wrong Streetcars Purchased for Center City Streetcar,” she states that “the new streetcars as designed won’t fit in the existing maintenance barns, and that there may be an issue of whether they fit the gauge of rail.”

“It appears the error will require either a change order for the design of the streetcars or incur new costs for construction of the new or retrofitted maintenance barns,” Herbold writes, saying that she is disappointed by the news.

Mayor Jenny Durkan first hinted that the new streetcar sizes were a problem earlier in July, telling KUOW: “…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.”

The city has asked the independent auditor to go back for additional assessments. It aims to determine if the old streetcar system can work with the new one that Seattle has partially bought into, and almost constructed. For example: Can a larger, heavier streetcar line up with existing stations designed for smaller vehicles? Or, can the older, lighter cars work on the new tracks?

The mayor is also asking if the city can retrofit the old tracks for the new streetcars.

Seattle streetcars

The city warns that there may be additional capital shortfalls to complete the streetcar connector. Mayor Durkan’s office notes that the first analysis from KPMG was more in depth than expected and raised more questions than answers. For example, it has also been discovered that the streetcar lines are more expensive to operate than previously expected. Seattle’s 2017 streetcar budget was $500,000 short, primarily due to the South Lake Union line.

The auditor is now developing an updated assessment on the Seattle streetcar system. That report will address:

  • Capital costs of building the streetcar connector.
  • Cost of delaying construction until sometime in the future.
  • Can the larger streetcars fit into Seattle’s existing maintenance barns?
  • Current and forecasted operations and maintenance costs for South Lake Union, First Hill, and the city connector streetcar lines.
  • Current streetcar ridership numbers, and projected ridership estimates for existing and proposed lines.
  • Answer the question: Will there be more budget shortfalls given updated O&M costs, and ridership updates?

In tandem with the streetcar construction project, the city intended to complete utility work along the route. It still plans to complete some of that work despite the issues with the streetcar. A water main will be replaced along the southern portion of First Avenue.

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