Everett streetcar could work, but would be spendy

EVERETT — Imagine 10 years from now a new University of Washington campus at Everett Station linked by a streetcar line to a thriving downtown with shops, condos and restaurants.

Now picture that line continuing north to Everett Community College or the waterfront, then south to a bustling new neighborhood on the Snohomish River with even more condos and houses, a movie theater and city park.

It could happen, says Tom Brennan, with Nelson-Nygaard, the consulting company that conducted a yearlong streetcar feasibility study for Everett that was released last week.

But it will cost.

The first 11/2 mile leg of the route alone is expected to cost about $54 million. Add about 3 miles of north and south spurs, right-of-way, vehicle and maintenance costs and the price tag swells to more than $131 million.

That doesn’t include the $6 million to $9 million it would cost to run the street car system every year.

The cost would require selling bonds and raising sales taxes as well as collecting money from special assessment and parking districts.

Different cities use a hodgepodge of methods to pay for streetcars, ranging from paying the entire cost out of the city’s general fund in Charlotte, N.C., to cobbling more than a half dozen state, federal, county and city funding sources for Portland, Ore.’s proposed eastside line.

The new study looks at Everett’s specific geography and draws construction and funding examples set by Portland, Tacoma and Seattle, which celebrated the maiden voyage of its South Lake Union Streetcar a week ago.

“The streetcar is really the mode that you’re looking for,” Brennan said.

The consultant’s study, which included engineering work, financial number crunching and meetings with property owners along the route, found streetcars are feasible in Everett.

That’s good news for rail advocates, because the city previously considered resurrecting replica trolly buses, a tourist attraction once used in Everett or adding a trainlike bus downtown.

Streetcars are better than buses because they attract up to 60 percent more riders, seem to encourage quality urban development and open door for creative funding strategies, Brennan said.

Portland, for example, has seen more than $3 billion in development along its streetcar line since it opened in 2001, including about 6,000 residential units and 4 million square feet of commercial space, according to the Nelson-Nygaard study.

The city also paid for 30 percent of its capital costs with bonds that will be paid back from revenue collected in a special taxing district, which charges a variable fee to property owners in a three block radius of the route.

When Tacoma replaced an existing bus line with streetcars, it saw a 500 percent spike in ridership, Everett’s consultant said.

While some stakeholders and city officials are gung-ho about the prospect, it’s not yet clear to what extent property owners along the proposed routes are willing to chip in for the steep initial cost of a streetcar system.

If the city pursues its streetcar dream it will quickly have to figure out how to pay for it, said Chris Zahas, of Leland Consulting Group of Portland, which also worked on the study $113,000 feasibility study.

“Planning for something like this doesn’t make sense unless you can pay for it,” Zahas said.

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or dchircop@heraldnet.com.

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