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Bus Commutes on 1st Avenue // Center City Streetcar, $9 Million Proposal

Bus Commutes on 1st Avenue

West Seattle bus riders are facing unacceptably long wait times on 1st Avenue to get back home in the evening.

Earlier this week my office sent a request to SDOT Director Zimbabwe to examine options to speed up traffic. The email that I sent to constituents earlier this week requested an update from SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe; today SDOT replied. Here are the four separate actions SDOT has identified:

  1. Revising signal timing at 1st Ave S & S Dearborn St and Alaskan Way S & S Dearborn St to further aid transit operation
  2. Further optimizing the signal timing plan for the 1st Ave corridor through Pioneer Square while emphasizing the north and south movements
  3. Implementing pre-game event timing to support the last two mid-day baseball game for the season
  4. Working to ensure high priority for incident management during the morning and afternoon commute time

Thank you to Director Zimbabwe for responding to this important issue for West Seattle commuters.

Center City Streetcar, $9 Million Proposal

The Mayor and SDOT have sent legislation to the Council requesting a $9 million “interfund” loan for the Center City Streetcar.  The loan is intended to pay for necessary extra design work because SDOT ordered streetcars that are too large to fit in portions of the alignment and the maintenance base. The funding will also allow SDOT to re-evaluate the strength of 1st Avenue in Pioneer Square.

The $9 million loan is proposed to eventually be paid back from the sale of the city-owned Mercer Megablock properties, expected in 2020.

The current cost estimate of the Center City Streetcar is $286 million, with a funding gap of at least $65 million. I’ve written about a Center City Streetcar here, here and here, so I’ll address only a few points here.

First of all, in 2017, when the estimated cost was $158 million, the Council adopted an amendment I proposed requiring that SDOT report to the Council to “identify contingency strategies and potential funding sources to address the risk that future Federal Transit Agency funds are not included in the federal budget to reimburse the capital construction costs of the project.”

SDOT’s report said only “If the full $75 million is not appropriated by Congress, SDOT will identify alternative funding sources to complete the project on schedule.”

The Council still has not received an answer about how to pay for the extra costs of the project, nor have we received a proposal to fully fund it.

This matters.  The most likely option to be proposed for how to pay the extra costs of the projects is by not funding other transportation priorities.

If the City receives all $75 million from the federal government and the Council authorizes a bond sale, estimated to be $45 million, to dedicate commercial parking tax revenues to fund the bonds there will still be a $65 million gap.

The more likely scenario is a $140 million funding gap.  Here’s why:

Thanks to the First Quarter Enhanced Capital Project reports for the 2019 watchlist that I sponsored and that the Council adopted earlier this year, for better accountability over large capital projects, we learned that: “The $50 million will expire in Sept 2020 if a small starts grant agreement is not yet executed. We do not expect to have an executed small starts grant agreement by Sept 2020 under the revised, draft schedule.”

Even if it was possible for the federal funding to come in, and there were no additional cost increases, $75 million would cover only 26% of the construction costs.   But in reality, as we learned from the watch list report, the new, hoped for $25 million in FTA funding is speculative but, also the original $50 million will expire too, requiring Congress to do a new future budget appropriation in 2020.

Keep in mind that in February 2016, when former Mayor Murray announced that $75 million was proposed for federal funding, the total project cost was listed at $135 million. This estimate was included in the October 2015 SDOT “Small Starts” grant funding application to the Federal Transit Administration. That application listed the FTA grant as funding 55.6% of construction costs.

The FTA funding for this project is more uncertain than ever, resulting in a possible $140 million funding gap, nearly half of the project.

While SDOT and the Mayor’s Office have different leadership today than that when the report was issued, and have been more transparent about costs, I still believe that it would be bad stewardship of public resources if the Council voted before have a funding proposal for the project.

Secondly, we need more information about the funds from the sale of the Mercer properties. How much will the City have available to spend from the sale of those properties? What could we do with those funds?

The first use of funds from the sale is to repay around $18.5 million in loans taken out against the properties, principally to fund the Mercer Project. Some of the funds must be used for transportation (100% for one of the properties, 42% for the other). In Resolution 31786, adopted by the Council in late 2017, the Council stated its intent to use additional non-transportation revenues for affordable housing.

This context is needed to make an informed decision about what the best use of these funds is. Is it $9 million? Or more?

Finally, it’s increasingly important for all of Seattle to have good transit connections to the South Lake Union employment center. When the C Line route from West Seattle shifted to run to South Lake Union, rather than ending in Downtown, ridership went up. Route 40, connecting Ballard and Fremont to South Lake Union since 2012, has high ridership. The H Line Rapid Ride project is scheduled to connect Delridge directly to South Lake Union beginning in 2021.

I-976 has qualified for the statewide November ballot; if it passes, in 2020 the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) would lose $25 million in vehicle license fees Seattle voters approved in 2014 for additional bus service, beyond what is funded by King County Metro. This could affect Seattle’s ability to maintain current funding levels for service in 2020; on the C Line, for example, over 1/3 of service is now funded by Seattle. While the City has some reserves, this is important to keep in mind.

Consideration of legislation for the $9 million is planned for Tuesday, August 6 in the Sustainability and Transportation Committee.

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