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Jason Rantz

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Crazy numbers used to justify flawed Seattle streetcar plan

(File, SDOT)

Once the Seattle Department of Transportation connects the city’s two separate streetcar tracks, more people will undoubtedly use it to get around. But ridership won’t come remotely close to the numbers SDOT claims it will and even some on the city council aren’t buying it.

The $177 million project will connect the South Lake Union track to the one that navigates through Capitol Hill and First Hill. Both streetcar lines are currently under-performing.

According to The Seattle Times’ David Gutman, the two streetcars average about 5,200 users per weekday. Many bus lines in the county experience higher rates of use.

What will happen after this new project is built, connecting the two tracks? SDOT claims that in the first year of service they’ll get 22,000 riders a day. By 2035? 30,000 daily users, which is almost a 470 percent increase to today’s ridership.

This estimation is absolutely insane. And not everyone is buying it.

“The financial assumptions are simply unrealistic based on our history with the streetcar,” Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said in the Times. “I don’t want a situation where we don’t meet those projections and the result is we end up seeing bus-service hours cut to pay for any shortfall.”

Kudos to Herbold for being skeptical.

Why is SDOT offering this crazy number? They need to justify the cost of the project. Beyond that, the city is committed to the project because of an ideological marriage to the idea that we should ditch cars for transit. They see it being done in European cities (that they may not have even visited), so they think it’ll work here. It’s in their interest to push projects because they ultimately believe people will use the service to justify how much money was spent and how bad traffic has become as a result.

It’s a bad argument. Traffic has become worse as the city has pushed the streetcar, despite the costs. In fact, the worse the traffic, the lower the streetcar ridership. They also became unreliable. In 2016, the SLU streetcar was on time just 58 percent of the time. As the Times points out:

The much-delayed First Hill streetcar opened last year and fell more than 30 percent below ridership projections in its first year. SDOT doesn’t expect it to come close to its original projections until the new line is built.

Do I think a connected track will lead to increased ridership? Yes. I’ll be one of those people because I rarely drive. But we all know that the streetcar will still share the road with cars and buses in an area SDOT has already made more congested by these types of projects.

To somehow believe that, once connected, ridership will explode, making it one of the most efficiently run streetcars in the country? It’s laughable. The council was advised that it would be “extraordinary” if it were to happen. And the city must move ahead with realistic numbers, rather than set up the system to fail.

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