South Lake Union streetcar, your bus service

Unless transit riders speak up their bus service will be put at risk in the future. How might that happen? The answer lies in legislation that the City Council will vote on Monday, June 27.

The plan

The City Council had previously voted Council Bill 115292 out of the Transportation Committee by a vote of 5-2 (Licata and Peter Steinbrueck dissenting), which authorizes the mayor to proceed with the construction and operation of the proposed South Lake Union (SLU) streetcar.

According to the mayor's plan, King County Metro will operate the SLU streetcar, but the city will be responsible for 100 percent of the SLU streetcar's operation and management (O&M) costs until either Sound Transit LINK Light Rail begins operations (estimated to occur in mid-2009) or the Seattle Monorail project begins operations (estimated to occur in 2010).

I am willing to support the city developing funding sources to pay for the streetcar's O&M costs for the first two years of operations - but only using funds that are specifically devised to pay for the streetcar and that would not otherwise exist.

That is, the proposed revenue sources - fare-box revenues, bulk ticket sales and station and streetcar sponsorships - are not revenue sources that currently provide funds to the city's general fund.

After this initial period, Metro will become responsible for 75 percent of the SLU streetcar's O&M costs. Based on projected O&M costs for the SLU streetcar (assuming 15-hour days and 15-minute headways), the mayor projects that Metro will need to dedicate more than 9,000 Metro transit hours to pay for 75 percent of the SLU streetcar's O&M costs.

The problem

This is a serious problem because those Metro transit hours represent about 20 percent of all the new transit hours that Metro allocates to Seattle for operating all of our bus lines. This is a serious misallocation of our public resources.

There are more than 400 miles of bus-service lines in Seattle. The SLU streetcar is one mile long. Twenty percent of our new Metro service hours should not be automatically reserved just for this one project.

In other words, future bus service to any neighborhood, like South Lake Union, should be judged by the same criteria, whether it be their level of ridership or something else.

Under the mayor's current plan, the SLU streetcar goes to the head of the line and transit service to other parts of the city will lose out on receiving those additional transit hours.

The possible solution

To correct this problem I offered a very reasonable amendment that says that Seattle shall not include any firm commitments to pay for the SLU streetcar with Metro transit service hours until there is sufficient information to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of such allocation against other competing transit priorities in Seattle neighborhoods.

This amendment simply asks the council to provide a level playing field when evaluating the allocation of Metro service hours across the city.

What is the problem with this approach? There is none, unless the subsidy for the SLU streetcar is so great that it cannot compete with the bus services needed by citizens in other parts of the city.

But if that is the case, then the SLU community, which will benefit most directly from the streetcar, should pay for the O&M costs through a Business Improvement Area (BIA). This is the approach that other cities have taken, such as Tampa, which also has a streetcar and was identified by the mayor's consultant as a good model to compare with Seattle's streetcar.

In addition, we are only tapping about 30 to 35 percent of the special benefits that SLU property owners will experience via an increase in their property values. The property owners are proposing to pay only $25 million toward the capital costs while their special benefits could be as much as $80 million.

Consequently, there is definitely "room" to charge the property owners more, especially considering that the SLU streetcar is more a development amenity as opposed to an effective and efficient method of transportation.

Show your support

Unless the council adopts my amendment, I will not support the current SLU streetcar ordinance, because the bus service needs in other neighborhoods will not be given adequate consideration for future growth in service.

If you agree with me, contact City Council's main line phone number (684-8888) and leave a message: "I support the Licata amendment to the streetcar ordinance. Please do not endanger my neighborhood's future bus service."

You can also call the Mayor's Office at 684-4000 and leave the same message, because the mayor is opposing my admendment. But if he changes his mind, then the council will go along with his decision.

Nick Licata is chair of the City Council's Public Safety, Civil Rights & Arts Committee. He can be reached at

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