An Oct 26th article in the Times, “Sound Transit gets mixed reviews in state audit” apparently summarizes the results from a 125 page report concerning State Auditor Brian Sonntag’s audit of ST. It credits ST for “adjusting well to the recession” but criticizes its “over-optimistic” ridership forecasts and “its citizen-oversight panel lacks teeth.” Overall, Sonntag said, he's pleased with the quality of the report and Sound Transit's cooperation. The audit also praised ST for “a policy called Phase Gate, where leaders examine the spending trend at each step — engineering, bidding, construction, operations — before moving ahead.”
These audit results sure don’t jibe with what I’ve observed during several years of following ST actions. Maybe accountants use different criteria than what I’m used to as a former engineer. What’s clear from the “Phase Gate” policy is ST’s emphasis is on “construction” rather than “transportation’. They may do a decent job of construction, but fail to consider whether light rail is the best “transportation” solution. Any competent engineer would have recognized ST made a historic blunder when they selected light rail rather than BRT for the center roadway. ST spent 10 years and millions studying cross-lake and eastside mass transit options but never considered BRT as the “no-build” option. It doesn’t take an engineer to calculate ST’s 2008 DEIS prediction of 24,000 riders per hour from a 4-car train every nine minutes is absurd.
A ST 2004 study concluded a single lane could not accommodate all the cross-lake bus and HOV traffic. An engineer would not have ignored that conclusion as ST did when they concluded a 4th lane on the outer bridge would have adequate capacity. (And used that conclusion to convince a Kittitas judge to allow them to install light rail on the center roadway in a recent suit.) However, an engineer would have recognized adding the 4th lane to in the 90’s would have benefitted all cross-lake commuters, but particularly “reverse’ commuters. ST has let “planning” and “funding” problems delay the 4th lane until 2016.
An engineer would not have spent about $500 million on a North Sounder train program that drops commuters off at the King Street Station, particularly since commuters already had easy access to express bus connections into downtown Seattle. It’s hard to believe an audit wouldn’t do more to shut down a transportation system that subsidizes each rider by about $20,000 a year. ST latest South Sounder extension to Lakewood is another example of millions spent in an expensive and probably futile attempt to attract riders.
Even the audits approval of ST “adjusting to the recession” is debatable. Most of the construction won’t begin for several years, hopefully well after the recession has ended. ST budget “adjustment” is more likely the result of their realization that fare revenue will be substantially less than predicted for far into the future. (The ST 2012 budget predicts only 5% of their revenue will be derived from passenger “fares”) They initially predicted more than 100,00 riders daily by 2010 (not the 45,000 levels by 2020 cited in the audit). The loss in revenue from only 30,000 current riders is substantial. East Link’s lack of capacity and access belies ST projection of 50,000 riders by 2030, suggesting additional budget problems.
It’s clear to this former engineer that ST needs a new audit.