City’s generous South Lake Union streetcar ridership numbers raise questions

By Kathy Mulady

Marie Steffans works on Eastlake Avenue and often takes the South Lake Union streetcar to run downtown to do errands on her lunch break.

“There are fewer stops than the bus, and it’s not very crowded,” she said.

Steffans was one of the few regulars riding the streetcar late Thursday afternoon. There was also a man visiting from Sydney, Australia, a mom and her kids riding for fun on spring break and an architect who took the trolley to a meeting.

“It seemed like the easiest way to get out here from downtown,” he said.

The streetcars, which have been running in South Lake Union for well over a year, often appear nearly empty. Many people were surprised when Mayor Greg Nickels announced in late December that a half-million people rode the streetcars during the first year of operation.


That averages about 1,400 people a day between the two streetcars that run the route.


The half-million riders is double the number of passengers that were expected in the first year when the streetcar line was proposed.


Ethan Melone, streetcar project manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation, told the PostGlobe on Thursday that revenue from the streetcar during the first year was also significantly higher than projected.

Counting passengers might be inexact, but counting income from ticket sales should be more precise.

According to Melone, the streetcar fare revenue totaled $371,594. That’s an average of just under 75 cents per rider for the 500,000 passengers. But part of that passenger number is estimated too.


Fares are collected three ways – on board the streetcar, on the platforms while waiting for the streetcar and from riders who use their Metro pass for the streetcar.


Melone said in 2008, on-board cash fares were $73,185; tickets bought on the platform totaled $51,698; and the allocation of Metro pass revenue (estimated at 75 cents per rider) totaled $246,711.


Some Seattle City Council members still seem unconvinced that operating costs for the streetcar line are really being met.


During a City Council budget committee meeting Thursday, council members Nick Licata and Sally Clark asked for additional information on revenue and expenses for the South Lake Union streetcar line.


Passenger counts, ticket sales and operating costs will be key information as the city moves forward with a proposal to build a system of streetcar lines throughout Seattle.


But Melone said ridership in South Lake Union “is not expected to be directly predictive of ridership for other lines.”


Density and the types of attractions along the individual routes likely would play a bigger role in estimating potential ridership and revenue, he said.


The South Lake Union streetcar takes travelers along a 2.6-mile loop.


There is no automatic or electronic system recording the number of riders on the streetcar. Instead, it’s up to the drivers to count passengers as they board, then every 10 or 15 minutes to chart those numbers on passenger count logs.


A review of the passenger records show what many would expect: Much of the day, there are two, three or four riders on the streetcar. But occasionally during the day, the cars are much more crowded; midmorning and dinner time are busiest, but there don’t seem to be any other clear patterns.


Even considering that the two streetcars run 15 hours on weekdays and 17 hours on weekends, the numbers seem generous.


Reports from King County Metro to the city Department of Transportation suggest that is exactly what the routes average. Some days the numbers dip to 700 total; other days they top 2,200.


Some evenings, the cars are crowded with 30 or 40 people for every 15-minute segment. But there also are days when power outages, collisions with cars or snow on the tracks keep the passenger count at zero for hours.


A reporter counting riders on the streetcar came up with tallies that were sometimes dramatically smaller than the numbers the driver recorded, and other times were just about the same.


Part of the entertainment on board the streetcar is watching passengers, mainly tourists, try to buy tickets from the finicky, baffling machine while holding onto a railing with one hand, digging in their wallet for a debit card with the other and squinting at the directions and array of buttons.

Many reach their destination before they manage to buy a ticket, shrug and step off.



City leaders are considering plans for three new streetcar lines:

    * The next streetcar track will be laid for the First Hill line, linking Capitol Hill to the Chinatown-International District. About $120 million in funding for the line was included in the Sound Transit Transportation package.

    * A third stretch of track, called the Central line, is proposed to stretch mainly along First Avenue from Seattle Center to King Street Station.

    * The Fremont-Ballard line would connect with the South Lake Union segment, and another would link Eastlake to the University District.

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