Cancel the Seattle Streetcar

It’s at least 80 percent over budget, as it was supposed to cost $110 million and is now expected to cost more than $200 million. Ridership is well short of expectations. And projections of operating costs are far greater than the original claims. So Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan has halted construction on an expansion of the city’s streetcar lines.

This is certainly a brave step considering the enormous pressures to distribute tax dollars to worthy potential campaign donors. Plus streetcar advocates warn that halting and then restarting construction could add even more millions to the cost.

But those things shouldn’t matter. “The City of Seattle has a critical obligation to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and an equal obligation to transparency,” says Mayor Durkan. And at this point, the wisest thing to do would be to cancel the streetcar completely.

Deception and delusion is the name of the game for public megaprojects,” points out Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, and apparently even streetcars qualify as megaprojects. Yet Westneat himself offers an idiotic solution to the streetcar problem: simply ban automobiles from the area traversed by the streetcars. That’ll teach people to drive when they could use a “modern” streetcar!

The city has already spent $90 million on the new streetcar line, but $52 million of that is for streetcars that can easily be sold to some other sucker city that wants to build or run streetcars. I hear Washington DC is in the market for some since their are already worn out after two years of operation. Seattle would also have to give $50 million back to the Federal Transit Administration, but that’s not really a cost, just money that hasn’t yet been spent.

So the real loss would be the $38 million already spent on construction and perhaps a few million more needed to undo the damage caused by that construction. On the other hand, completing the project will cost at least $110 million more than has already been spent, while operating the streetcars is now estimated to cost $24 million a year, which is 50 percent more than originally projected.

Operating increased bus service on the same route would cost a fraction of that much: in 2016, Seattle spent more than $60 per vehicle-revenue mile operating streetcars, while King County Metro spent $18 on buses it operated itself and $9 on buses on contracted out to private operators. Thus, halting streetcar construction would save around $200 million over the next five years alone. That sounds like a pretty good result to me.

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7 thoughts on “Cancel the Seattle Streetcar

  1. Henry Porter

    Has there ever been a project that was so stupid, and so obviously a waste of public resources, that it was rejected by the Federal Transit Administration?!

  2. TCS

    “The Puget Sound International Railway and Power Company has announced that it will transform its street car system in Everett, Washington, to a motor bus system, tearing up the car tracks and disposing of the street cars now in operation… PSIR&P Manager George Newell’s analysis of the conditions which made the change from street cars to motor buses necessary will be of interest to every street railway operator in America, because the same problems face all traction companies. Ask for a copy.” 1923 Fageol Safety Coach advertisement.

  3. LazyReader

    Buses are cheaper, they’re about 1% of the construction and capital costs of rail transit because they use pre-existing infrastructure; the roads. Buses can go virtually anywhere, Remember, four million miles of paved road in the US so the myriad of destinations that can be selected is substantial, only 4% of the nations 155,000 miles of rail are for public utilization.
    The Antiplanner is right, an electric bus is useless if no one rides it. That’s cause the bus services behave exactly like rail transit; they’re operated by the same organization of course. They wanna collect riders from a select few locations and move them to a select few locations. They pursue linear, monolithic transit instead of cellular distributive transit. The buses are too big for that. Mini-buses are not only simpler but they’re better scaled to drive through towns and cities. Since the Antiplanner states average buses are only 1/6th full, why carry around the other 5/6ths. Work commutes occupy the most amount of transit volume. The rest of the day; afternoons, late nights they’re nearly empty. Only a fraction of the vehicle fleet needs to run around during those off peak hours. Minibuses are about half the length and microbuses are no bigger than SUV’s or vans.

    A gallon of diesel cost about 3 bucks a gallon at a typical 4-6 miles per gallon, that adds up; combined with oil changes, expensive emissions treatments, and brake repair. According to the Department of Energy the average transit bus uses over 10,000 gallons of gas equivalent worth of fuel per year. That’s over $30,000 in fuel costs annually
    Proterra’s new Catalyst 40 foot electric bus has a 660 kilowatt hour battery, with the average price of electricity at 12 cents per kilowatt hour charging the bus from depletion to 100% costs 79 dollars worth of juice. Assuming it’s 70% depleted by the end of the day, requiring recharge, annual costs are $20,000 worth of electricity.
    https://www.afdc.energy.gov/data/10308
    Also the electric bus doesn’t pollute local air. Even if the power source that charges the bus does, power plants are often distant from the cities they power.
    CO2 emissions per Megawatt-hour given the type of fuel used to generate.
    Wind – 26.5 lbs
    Solar – 119 lbs
    Hydroelectric – Variable
    Nuclear – 26.5 lbs
    Gas – 1,051 lbs
    Coal – 2,207 lbs

  4. Frank

    If they get rid of the streetcars, what will they do with all those “Ride the SLUT” t-shirts?

    Change them to:

    “We killed ride the SLUT!”

  5. MJ

    “The City of Seattle has a critical obligation to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and an equal obligation to transparency,” says Mayor Durkan.

    Now there’s something I never thought I’d hear from a Seattle mayor.

    Yet Westneat himself offers an idiotic solution to the streetcar problem: simply ban automobiles from the area traversed by the streetcars.

    Ah, now there’s the Seattle I remember.

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