The $52 million contract the Seattle Dept. of Transportation had to purchase 10 new streetcars for a planned Center City Connector line hit the brakes this month, even while the department says they plan to continue with the delayed project.
While Seattle transportation officials canceled the contract with CAF USA, the American arm of Spanish-based CAF, for the streetcars before they were built, the department expects to craft updates to the project to finish it, now planned for a 2026 opening, eight years beyond the original 2018 timeline.
Saying it would cost the city more to stay in the streetcar deal, one agreed to in 2017, than to create a new contract, the news comes as yet another hiccup in the project.
Already pushed back years, the 2017 order of streetcars from CAF were for longer and heavier versions than already in service on Seattle streets. While one centimeter narrower than the currently operating Inekon cars, the extra nine ft. in length and heavier body was raised as a concern by King County Metro, the agency operating the streetcar line for SDOT, saying not only would the longer cars not fit in the maintenance facility custom-built to house Inekon cars, but many of the routes couldn’t handle the longer cars. The heavier cars could also require work to retrofit bridges.
Czech-based Inekon was not able to fulfill a contract for new cars, so Seattle was forced to find a new supplier and couldn’t get a match to the streetcars already in service.
While the city reviewed the streetcar project, a stop-work order was placed on the new cars in spring 2018, ensuring work on actual car construction never started, all while an independent review of the entire project was underway.
The Seattle Times reports that the SDOT contract allowed it to cancel the deal for any reason, but that the city had already spent $5.4 million in the contract.
The overall cost of the $208 million project has city officials and lawmakers falling on both sides of its value, with some saying the connection to South Lake Union, the waterfront, Pioneers Square, Chinatown-International District and First Hill is worth the effort and cost and others questioning the project.
As Seattle still navigates the streetcar production landscape that will likely result in longer cars, $9 million in additional funding for design work to handle the larger cars will happen before a new bidding process. Seattle plans to release a request for qualifications for engineering consultants to help with this portion of the project.
Seattle says the new bidding process will give companies a chance to propose plans to build vehicles closer to the size and weight of existing streetcars and eliminate the financial risk and uncertainty associated with the old vehicle contract schedule.
Before Seattle goes to bid, they plan to update the design specifications for streetcar vehicles to take into account the existing vehicle market and the system’s specialized needs. They can also get started on updating infrastructure, such as making sure the streetcar platforms, maintenance facility and roadway structures are ready for the new streetcars.
Transportation officials point out that Seattle Streetcar ridership has increased 18 percent in the last year, showing the importance of the downtown expansion.
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.