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The Trolley Problem: New Seattle Streetcars May Not Fit on Tracks

Seattle, it seems, has a trolley problem. The city ordered streetcars for an expansion of its growing system that may not, according to a new Seattle Times report, fit on the tracks or fit into maintenance barns. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, elected last fall following a long-ago sexual assault scandal that forced the previous mayor to resign, had already put a halt to the buildout after escalating costs were discovered.

The expansion was originally budgeted at $150 million, but that figure soon rose to $200 million, in part due to public utility work that wasn’t predicted in the initial budget and rising costs for construction and labor in Seattle. But in March, the Times reported that operating costs would be 50% higher than the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) had estimated—$24 million a year, rather than $16 million. The regional transit authority, King Country Metro, disclosed this and debated it in internal memos that the Times obtained through a public-records request. An independent review for the city is in progress, and a deadline for its completion and release went by in June.

The newest disclosure shines a light on 10 streetcars ordered last fall for $52 million from a different firm than the one that built the vehicles currently running on the rest of the active lines. For reasons not yet disclosed, the new cars are heavier, longer, and wider, and the mayor’s office told the Times that it’s unclear whether they will fit on the tracks or fit into maintenance barns. The SDOT’s previous chief left in December under a mutual agreement with the incoming mayor, and an interim head is leaving in August. Other SDOT staff involved in streetcar planning have also left the department.

The ethical conundrum known as “the trolley problem” suggests that you’re driving a streetcar and have to pull a switch to choose among crushing different groups of people. Perhaps on one track, your mother; the other, several political enemies. Should you save more people instead of your mom? In this case, Seattle mayor’s has the moral hazard of deciding between pulling the plug on a project of mixed popularity into which millions have already been poured, and proceeding with a plan with escalated and rising costs to produce a transit option that is well behind its ridership goals.