Two at-large candidates for the 2015 Seattle City Council election, John Roderick and Alon Bassok, have jointly proposed a vision for a citywide municipal rail system. Documents released on Wednesday propose a 75-100 mile network built within a decade and funded with a $1 billion property tax levy. It harkens back to the streetcar system Seattle had before it was dismantled in the 1940s. The bold concept goes far beyond what any local transportation agency is planning, and until the election in November it’s uncertain whether the idea can gain momentum.
Both candidates are vying for citywide council seats; Roderick, a musician and artist, is running for position 8. Bassok, running for position 9, is an urban planner and works at the University of Washington’s Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies (full disclosure: I’ve taken a class taught by Bassok). They both tout urbanist credibility, also calling for mandatory requirements for affordable housing.
In a three page summary (PDF) the two call for a citywide system of “neighborhood municipal rail”, similar to Seattle’s historic streetcar system. Their proposal does not have any details on routes, stops, or other features, but it does specify the need for exclusive right-of-way on city streets: “Neighborhood municipal rail would have its own lane, priority at traffic signals, and be completely separated from traffic. That makes it like Portland’s MAX, Sound Transit on MLK, or Seattle’s proposed new Center City Connector. We also could use the proposed tax source to upgrade the South Lake Union and First Hill lines to separate them from traffic, and make them more useful as real mass transit.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation is already one step ahead on this last point. The portion of the South Lake Union line on Westlake Avenue will see increased reliability with the curb lanes converted to transit-only lanes. The Center City Connector on First Avenue is also primed for exclusive lanes in the middle of the street.
One criticism of modern streetcar systems in the U.S. is that they typically operate in mixed traffic, providing questionable transportation benefits at much higher costs than buses. There is debate on whether streetcars really need to go fast, though, to be harmonious with walkable urban places. But streetcar vehicles also have some advantages over standard buses, which I’ve covered in a previous post; they have higher passenger capacity, more doors, and smoother rides. Because of the much higher capital costs of streetcars, they should only be used to replace buses on those corridors with the highest existing ridership, the greatest mix of land uses, and which connect a city’s most important destinations.
This questions the feasibility of such a large citywide network. Nothing of this scale has been discussed or planned by either the City of Seattle and its Transit Master Plan or King County Metro, the local transit agency. In 2008 Seattle identified possible routes for additional streetcar lines from Downtown to Ballard and the University District; in the latter case, the Roosevelt High Capacity Transit study is likely going to prefer bus rapid transit due to its lower costs.
A good transportation plan starts with a good land use plan. And Seattle has that with its urban village strategy, which concentrates population and employment growth in key hubs throughout a city that is dominated by single family homes. Streetcars, and high quality transit in general, should first be prioritized between these urban villages to connect the most people to jobs, shopping, and opportunity. The historic network on the map above is a sprawling system with no clear hierarchy, through its grid pattern is something to be desired. Like how a streetcar network could connect to the regional Link light rail network being currently built out, it would be best for streetcars to serve as a backbone of the local network and have buses feed into it.
Roderick and Bassok say a $1 billion property tax to pay for a 30-year bond might cost the average homeowner about $200 per year. This could be too much for a city that is heavily reliant upon property tax levies. Mayor Ed Murray is currently pushing for Move Seattle, a nine year $930 million transportation levy, to go on the ballot this fall that will cost the average homeowner $277 per year. They propose funding operations and maintenance through an employee head tax.
The capital cost is highly underestimated. At the lower end of the spectrum, $1 billion for 75-100 miles comes to $10-13 million per mile. At 1.3 miles and for $50.5 million, Seattle’s South Lake Union line cost three times as much: $39 million per mile. The $134 million, 2.5 mile First Hill line cost even more, $53.6 million per mile. If this is to be seriously considered, the proposal’s extent must be significantly scaled back or a more realistic cost, based on previous streetcar projects in Seattle and elsewhere, must be presented.
Bicyclists may also oppose streetcars because of the potential for road bike wheels to get caught in tracks. This is easily avoided by ensuring bike lanes are provided parallel to streetcar tracks or, as Roderick and Bassok call for, giving streetcars exclusive lanes. At intersections Seattle already paints bikes lanes across streetcar tracks at right angles. Another solution is rubber strips that fill in the track flanges but depress under the weight of streetcars; they have not been widely deployed in North America.
At the very least, this proposal starts a worthwhile conversation about how Seattle’s transportation network must evolve to better serve its growing population. Roderick and Bassok write, “We can build this new system quickly. We can have a world class transit system. Let’s expand what we’ve started and complete 100 miles in 10 years.”
Whether the idea gains any clout will be decided by the upcoming election and whether other council candidates sign on to it. The primary election is August 4th, when each of the nine races will be whittled down to two candidates; Roderick is running against three others for position 8, including incumbent Tim Burgess, and in position 9 Bassok is up against five other candidates. The general election is November 3rd.