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The real problem with the Seattle streetcar project

The Seattle Streetcar. (SDOT)

The Seattle streetcar has faced issues related to its budget since it was first proposed in 2015. But the real problem runs far deeper than its ever-growing price tag.

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“I’m a huge transit fan, but (the streetcar) is just absolutely nothing at an incredible cost, is frequently empty, and it’s slow because it’s in traffic,” said KIRO Nights co-host Mike Lewis.

Lewis points out how the streetcar — spanning First Hill and South Lake Union — is subject to the same traffic issues a normal bus is, while costing significantly more.

“What you could have done was take that same route, and … just created a lane with electric buses,” he described. “One, it would have been incredibly cheap. Two, (it would be) a lane that’s designated for (buses only) — no cars.”

“If you can start doing that, people can move a fair distance fairly quickly, you could do it with electric buses, and you’re not putting in rails,” he added.

The Seattle streetcar has dealt with ballooning costs since it was first introduced. The total estimated budget for the streetcar project is $286 million, double the original estimate from when the line was proposed in 2015, and $88 million more than what was budgeted in 2017. That estimate also included nearly $17 million dollars to retrofit the existing tracks to fit the larger train cars ordered for the expansion.

That’s had some transit advocates questioning what exactly the city is trying to accomplish with an above-ground rail system, rather than opting to ease bus traffic with more designated lanes.

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“It’s just such a lousy, expensive system that does nothing to get people out of traffic,” Lewis pointed out. “It’s frequently faster to walk than to take the bus to Seattle because we’re not actually committing one way or the other. We’re trying to have it all ways, and as long as there are a lot of cars on the road, you’re not going to make the rest of mass transit very efficient at all.”

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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