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Seattle streetcar ridership takes big hit

Seattle's First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars are attracting far fewer passengers than the city had hoped.

<p>(FILE) Seattle's First Hill streetcar.</p>

Seattle's First Hill streetcar is attracting far fewer passengers than the city had hoped.

In a report to City Council on Friday, Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) officials said the 2.5-mile line is lagging behind on several key measures.

City leaders had initially projected that the line would attract around 1.24 million riders in 2016, but just 840,049 passengers hopped aboard last year, about a third lower than expected.

The streetcars are designed to carry more than 100 passengers at a time, but SDOT found that they are moving only an average of 32 people per hour.

Fares are only covering about 18 percent of the cost to operate the streetcar.

For comparison, other transit agencies in our area aim to cover about 25 percent of their costs with fares, but almost all of them are over that goal. Sound Transit covers more than 40 percent of the cost of operating the Link Light Rail system with fares.

On top of that, fare evasion on the line is high. SDOT estimates that 7.5 percent of riders aren't paying for their trip. The city had hoped more than 95 percent would pay.

There is a bright spot in the report; the streetcars have an 84 percent on-time average.

SDOT owns the line, but the money to operate it comes mostly from Sound Transit. This was determined after the regional transit agency eliminated a First Hill station from the Link Light Rail line, determining that there were too many engineering risks. The streetcar now connects First Hill to nearby light rail stations.

Across town, the older South Lake Union streetcar is also attracting fewer passengers, and many appear to be leaving the line for other services like Metro's RapidRide C Line, which was recently extended to the major tech-business hub. According to a new report, 100,000 fewer people rode the line in 2016 compared to the prior year.

SDOT has heavily invested in making the 1.3-mile line more reliable by taking one lane of Westlake Ave. away from cars and dedicating it to streetcars and buses.

Despite that, the streetcars are only sticking to their schedule 54 percent of the time. SDOT blames construction and traffic congestion for the poor performance.

The agency says later this year it will study ways to get the streetcars out of traffic along Terry Ave. and will paint the transit-only lanes along Westlake with red paint to encourage drivers to get out of the way.

Ridership in 2016 was 518,248, again about a third less than the 781,932 riders the city had hoped to see. The South Lake Union line is seeing about 40 riders per hour, but it operates fewer hours per day than the First Hill line.

Fares are covering 33 percent of the cost to operate the South Lake Union streetcar.

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