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Seattle rolling the dice on more ridership for streetcars

(File, SDOT)

Seattle’s streetcars have been missing their originally projected ridership marks over the last few years and now it appears the city is banking on a connector project to boost ridership back up.

According to the city’s data, ridership on the South Lake Union Streetcar outpaced original projections from 2012-2014. However, it began falling below projections in 2015 and continued that downward trend in 2016.

The First Hill Streetcar, which began operating last year, saw ridership of 840,049, well below the 1,238,942 original projection.

That lower-than-expected ridership didn’t stop a city council committee from accepting a federal grant expected to bring in $75 million over the next few years — including $50 million this year — to help fund the $152 million Center City Connector Streetcar. The Seattle Times reports the council committee accepted the grant Thursday.

The Center City project will add a 1.2-mile segment of rail along First Avenue and Stewart Street. The city would add seven vehicles and the service would function as “two interconnected lines, with overlapping and more frequent service” from Thomas Street in South Lake Union to Seventh Avenue and Jason Street in the International District.


But accepting the grant also came with a warning from the city’s Central Staff.

In a memorandum to the city’s Sustainability & Transportation Committee dated June 26, 2017, the committee is told that Central Staff has “raised concerns regarding the financial plan for the Center City Streetcar. [Central Staff] since examined the project’s underlying financial assumptions in more detail (including the ridership model, fare revenue estimates, and operating agreements), and CS continues to believe there is financial risk in the Center City Streetcar and First Hill Streetcar lines, and is not directly attributable to the Center City Streetcar.”

The streetcar plan relies on contributions from Sound Transit and King County Metro for operating the existing lines. Ridership, Central Staff points out, may also be impacted by congestion — which it already has — or changes to the city’s transit network, such as competing options.

The upside, of course, is that a more efficient, connected system could increase ridership significantly and outweigh the costs. The Seattle Department of Transportation projects the Center City Streetcar would increase ridership by about 200 percent with an additional 50 percent added to operating costs.

But based on the current trend of ridership, that could be a big if.

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