Mayor’s Budget Lowlights: business as usual – still favoring Downtown, South Lake Union (SLU), and streetcars

Seattle Streetcar 301

The Mayor’s mistaken budget priorities:  more for downtown,  another South Lake Union Streetcar bailout, and $151 million for another streetcar system

  • Another bailout of the SLU Streetcar: city planners question whether plan runs afoul of the city’s race & social justice initiative

  • Yet, Mayor moves forward with a $151 million plan for a new “Center City” streetcar serving downtown.  Like northend police bunker, the pricetag jumped $35-$45 million since last year & “could cause displacement”

While Mayor Murray rebuffs advocates’ and Sawant’s call for use of city bonding authority for low income housing, he wants to tap $45 million in bonds for a useless overpriced downtown streetcar!  Total cost: over $151 million.  The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) and budget show millions more poured into this boondoggle over next 5 years to cover capital costs plus debt service for 20 years years including use of commercial parking taxes better spent addressing real transportation needs especially in low income and minority communities.  And then there’s $15 million a year in operating costs.  Where will the dollars come from when like the current streetcar, ridership and revenues fall woefully short?

Also, does anyone recall any specific discussion whether to proceed with new streetcar, any transparency, any public review, or any specific up or down vote on such a massive outlay of city funding?  A council staff memo asks whether it’s proper at this time to commit from this budget the $45 million city bond revenues (plus years of interest payments from the commercial parking tax) for a new streetcar system, when the Council hasn’t specifically reviewed this project, held public hearings, or voted explicitly up or down on going forward with it.  The memo also asks whether it was proper for the Mayor to run off and apply for $75 million in limited federal transit dollars before the Council has voted up or down on the project.  They also wonder where the $31 million will come from to cover remaining costs, not to mention what they’ll do should operating revenues fall short as per the current SLU streetcar.  No worries, just mark that down “TBD” to be determined later.

When viewed through the City’s obligatory Race and Social Justice lens, another city staff memo asks whether the SLU Streetcar is a “proper use of commercial parking tax revenue” and “whether or not that represents lost funding to projects that benefited disadvantaged communities or new assets to communities with more diverse populations and incomes than that of South Lake Union.”

Hundreds of millions in the budget are earmarked for Downtown and SLU.  These two neighborhoods are referenced 115 times in the Mayor’s budget but try and find references (or projects) for your neighborhood

“South Lake Union” is referenced in relationship to budget items no less that 40 times. Downtown is mentioned another 40 times. If you search for “waterfront” that adds another 106 downtown-related references. The specific projects associated with these words total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now run a search for your neighborhood. If you’re from Ballard, the budget references your neighborhood 5 times. Capitol Hill and Lake City each 8 times. The Duwamish Valley and West Seattle 10 times. The Central District, Rainier Valley, Queen Anne, Southeast Seattle, Northeast Seattle each 2 times. And the projects linked to these neighborhoods each may run to a few thousand dollars at best.

Despite repeated requests, the budget remains a “citywide” document with no attempt to break out or identify how much of the budget is apportioned to each of the city’s seven districts. Nor has any attempt been made to rectify the disproportionate share going to South Lake Union and downtown to the detriment of other neighborhoods.

Also, despite Black Lives matter protests that have forced the Mayor to consider redesigning it, there’s still $15 million in the budget to plan for a new North Precinct Police Station.  And he envisions moving forward with monies in the CIP Plan for it over the next five years.

The single biggest boondoggle is his plan including from a race and social justice perspective is the Mayor’s plan for a $151 million dollar new streetcar system dubbed the “Center City Connector” running through downtown and linking the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars.  At 1.2 miles, that’s a whopping $125 million a mile, and like the new police station, it may be the nation’s most expensive streetcar system.  Also like the police station, it’s cost somehow exploded by $30-$40 million since last February.

To pay for this the Mayor will seek $75 million in our city’s limited allotment of federal transit funds and float a $45 million bond to be repaid over many years from commercial parking tax revenues.  That’s tens of millions we’d otherwise use for bus, road, bridge, and sidewalk needs.  There also is $21 million in the Mayor’s budget to extend the First Hill Streetcar along Broadway and funds are committed for planning of a possible $200 million dollar streetcar to Ballard.

What’s our beef with streetcars? They putt along at 5 miles per hour or less, carry few passengers, and $100 million plus per mile of track.  Operating costs are 30-40 percent more than bus systems (which are flexible, can easily be rerouted to meet changing transit needs, and with no costly track outlays). As the Seattle Times has said, streetcars are toys designed to enhance real estate values along their route, not a real transportation solution. 

Take the South Lake Union Streetcar.  After more than a decade of service (and despite years of promotional hype saying otherwise) it continues to rack up large annual deficits.  Ridership and farebox revenues are pitifully low. Only a Council approved “interfund loan” keeps it afloat.  In 2007, we were assured streetcar revenues easily would cover operations and by now repay the loan.   But the streetcar still is operating in the red and each year city monies must go to cover these costs.  The loan has been extended twice and $2 million on it remains to be paid.

Despite the Mayor’s constant preaching about his commitment to economic and racial justice and serving our neighborhoods, those values are not reflected in his budget priorities.  It’s business as usual with most of the city’s largess especially the city’s transportation dollars still are going downtown and into SLU.

Looks like it may take a lot more public outcry to motivate our Mayor and City Council to reorder our city’s priorities and ensure a more equitable distribution of the City’s revenues to our neighborhoods.

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About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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