Sound Transit Horror Stories: Letter from Seattle

Sound Transit's Rail Projects
Sounder Commuter Rail and Link light Rail as of 2008
12 years into its Sound Move Ten Year Plan (1996-2006)

By Emory Bundy
Sounder commuter rail

Sounder commuter rail

Although it absorbs the smaller portion of Sound Transit's funds--which mostly are allocated to Link light rail--Sounder commuter rail has the merit of having actually been put into operation. So there's a functioning entity to measure and evaluate. Its performance anticipates that of Link light rail.

Sound Transit's promises for Sounder commuter rail in the Sound Move Ten Year Plan tax package of 1996:

*82 miles in length, Everett to Lakewood
*Completed and fully operating in 2002, with 15 daily trains, 9 between Lakewood and Seattle, 6 Everett to Seattle
*Capital cost, $650 million
*Annual operating cost as of the benchmark year 2010, $10 million
*Ridership in 2010, 3.8 million boardings
*Farebox recovery, 27.5% of operating costs.

The record to date:

*75 miles of track completed
*10 of the15 daily trains are in operation , 7 from Tacoma to Seattle, 3 from Everett to Seattle
*Capital cost: $1.25 billion projected through 2010, with $1.1 billion more to follow via Phase 2 funds (second tax package, adopted 2008). The components to complete the Phase 1 $650 million capital development plan will cost approximately $1.8 billion, a $1.15 billion, 177% cost overrun.

*Completion of the 82 miles, promised by 2002, now is targeted for 2012-13.
*Operating costs exceed $30 million, triple the original projections--absorbed by only two-thirds of the promised daily trains.
*Annual ridership is 2.67 million, 70% that projected
.*Farebox recovery is 13% of operating costs, half the target

Most of the additional capital cost for Phase 2 is allocated to develop parking facilities added since the original Sound Move Ten Year Plan. Whereas much was made of "transit oriented development" at the outset--with images of people strolling, or perhaps biking to their handy train stop--virtually all Sounder's patronage is dependent on free, handy parking. People are enabled to live hither and yon, drive their SUVs and pickups to Sound Transit's far-flung parking lots and structures, and park free, in order to benefit from an enormously subsidized rail trip. Doug MacDonald, former Washington State Secretary of Transportation, and former Sound Transit board member, aptly dubbed Sounder, "Sprawl Rail."

"Transit-oriented development," doesn't mean live near your rail transit stop and get rid of your automobile. Were that the case, huge sums for parking facilities would be unnecessary. Rather, it means subsidies for commercial development near the stations, in addition to subsidies for the train system and its operations. E.g., there's a "transit-oriented development" in Kent, Kent Station. The municipality purchased the real estate for $15 million, spent $2 million for environmental remediation, and sold it to the developer for $5 million. Sound Transit then relocated its planned 800-stall parking garage to the opposite side of the tracks--where it brings traffic closer to downtown Kent--so the Kent Station developer could use the parking garage, free, for its customers.

The arrangement works because the clientele of Kent Station has virtually no relationship to that of Sounder. This is dramatized by the anchor tenant, a 13-screen cineplex. Since Sounder operates only during work day commuting hours, and people go to the movies evenings and weekends, Sounder patrons and movie-goers drive to and from the garage servicing Sounder's station and Kent Station without competing for parking spaces. Kent Station has almost nothing to do with transit, save the coming of Sounder provided a rationale for subsidizing the mall developer.

Central Link light rail

The vision of Link light rail was that of a 125-mile network linking all the major centers in the Central Puget Sound region (Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties). After several losses at the polls, a scaled-back 21-mile ten year "starter rail" plan was proposed, and the taxing authority was approved by public vote in 1996.

Central Link light rail was to run from the University District in north Seattle to South 200th, a short distance south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, at a cost of $2.3 billion. It was to be completed and operating in ten years, 2006, and demonstrate how well Sound Transit could build and operate a rail line. With this "test drive," the public could kick the tires and have confidence in approving additional, Phase 2 taxes for the rest of the 125-mile network, to completed and operating in 2020.

With great fanfare and bragging, a so-called Initial Segment of Central Link light rail (i.e. the "initial segment" of the "starter rail"), from downtown Seattle to Tukwila, will go into service in the summer of 2009, and be extended a short distance to the Sea-Tac Airport in 2010. Sound Transit then hurried to obtain its Phase 2 taxing authority, negating the public's opportunity to evaluate its Phase 1 performance. Initial Segment covers the cheapest, easiest portion of the promised Central Link segment, will cost as much as the proffered price of all Central Link, and is projected to have one-quarter the ridership promised in 2010. Also, four stations have been eliminated, and only 12 will be completed--four of them stations in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, originally built and financed nearly two decades ago.

For an additional $1.9 billion, Sound Transit plans to add two more of the Central Link stations by 2016, and reach the University of Washington's football stadium. At that point the $2.3 billion project, to be completed in 2006, will have reached neither end of the Central Link line (NE 45th in the U District and South 200th, south of Sea-Tac), it will have cost $4.4 billion, and be missing 7 promised stations. That will have exhausted the Sound Move Phase 1 taxes, even though extended for 10 years in addition to the original 10 years. Reaching the NE 45th and South 200th termini, now targeted for 2020, will add well over $1 billion, supplemented by Phase 2 taxes. As of 2020, for roughly $6 billion, Sound Transit's Central Link light rail is now scheduled for completion, 14 years late, absent 5 of the promised 21 stations, with a $3.7 billion cost overrun.

The Central Link ridership promised in 2010, 32 million boardings, won't be approached by 2020, with a system that will cost at least 2.6 times as much. Operating costs will be multiples of those projected, and the share covered by the farebox--forecast at 53%--will be but a small fraction.

As for the Phase 2 additions, which was supposed to complete the 125-mile light rail network by 2020, if all goes according to the current plan, only 50 miles will be completed by 2030. The cost per-station for that Phase 2 is projected at $650 million. For Phase 1, Central Link, the cost-per-station will be roughly $300 million, versus an original estimate a tad higher than $100 million.

In sum, the introduction of the two rail systems in the Central Puget Sound counties, is a slow, disruptive process, costing huge sums to build and operate. The bottom-line effect will be to degrade the already inadequate productivity of the public transit system. The time, money, effort, and distraction will add so little to transit ridership that the effect on the region's mobility will be indiscernible--save for the immense "opportunity costs," the resulting inability to make productive use the financial resources.

The attached graphs illustrate the trajectory of transit ridership, and the share of the region's entire transportation funding allocated to transit from local, state, and federal sources. Forty years ago transit received 29% of the funding, and delivered 6% of the transportation market share. If Sound Transit performs as well as it hopes to, and if the idealized smart growth land uses are fully adopted, by 2030 transit will serve 4% of the transportation market share, and absorb more than two-thirds of the region's transportation dollars.

Seattle Three County Transportation Tax Revenues
Seattle Transit Market Share: 1965-2040