In 2013 Sound Transit is intending to spend over $300 million on dubious light rail projects. In future years the entire area will pay heavily if they’re allowed to continue with plans to expand Central Link north and south and with their East Link plan extending light rail service through Bellevue towards Redmond. They initially sold Central Link light rail with promises of more than 100,000 daily riders by 2010 and light rail operating costs that offset the cost associated with the construction and implementation of light rail service. They sold East Link as the equivalent of 10 highway lanes across Lake Washington that would increase cross-lake capacity by 60%.
The reality is Central Link projected ridership for 2013 is only 27,900 and their operating costs for a two-car train are $848.06 per revenue hour or more than 4 times their projected 2013 bus operating costs ($194.57). The nominal train capacity of 300 riders (150 per car) is about 4 times the bus capacity (60-70 for regular buses and 80-90 for articulated buses). However, in 2012 they only averaged 91 boardings per trip suggesting very few of their “trips” needed the high capacity. Sound Transit deployed “one-vehicle” trains on about 20% of their trips to reduce costs. However they could have achieved far greater savings by replacing half of the train trips with buses.
It’s unclear how the north or south Central Link extensions will impact “trip revenue vehicle hours”. The Federal Way extension adds about 11 miles of track or 22 miles to a round “trip”. Sound Transit projected a $22.80 cost per revenue vehicle mile for 2013 or $45.60 per mile for a two-vehicle train. Using the two-vehicle, $45.60 per mile mileage charges, the extension to Federal Way would add $1003.20 to each round trip cost. Even more absurd, the commute time on light rail would be about 30 minutes longer than on a bus. It surely should be a “no-brainer” to stop any south end extension.
The 4.3-mile Northgate extension will add 8.6 miles or $379.60 per two-vehicle round trip. Each round trip would have to add close to 60 boarders to maintain a $6.50 cost per boarder. While possible, Northgate commuters already have excellent transit service with Metro Route 41 buses that depart Northgate every 4-5 minutes during peak morning commute and take 18 minutes to reach University St Station. The afternoon return commute routes provide similar frequencies and commute times.
None of Sound Transits north end bus routes (ST510, ST511, and ST512) even stop at Northgate; presumably because of the excellent metro bus service. Thus it would seem hard to justify the expense of extending light rail to add far more expensive light rail operation to the area. Sound Transit promises for 15,000 daily light rail boarders on the Northgate extension by 2030 seems highly “speculative”.
If the Northgate extension is questionable, the additional 8.2-mile extension to Lynnwood makes absolutely no sense. Similar to the Federal Way extension, the 16.4 miles will add nearly $750 to a two-vehicle, round-trip operating cost. ST511 currently leaves the Lynnwood T/C every 15 minutes and takes 34-38 minutes to reach 5th and Pine. It averages about 4400 boarders per weekday. It’s shear idiocy to spend hundreds of millions to install light rail to Lynnwood and replace the buses with far more expensive trains.
Rather than extend Central Link northward from the University Sound Transit should use the station as a terminus for 520 cross-lake BRT. BRT service across 520 would provide eastside residents with express bus routes from each P&R in the area to light rail connections at the University for fast reliable commutes into and out of downtown Seattle. Seattleites could use the return routes for those buses from the University to and from Microsoft and other eastside work destinations. The University terminus takes advantage of light rail capacity on the west side and BRT flexibility on the eastside to better serve both sets of commuters. The fact that the number of commuters in both directions is similar makes cross-lake BRT particularly effective.
The Central Link construction and train operating costs are a primary reason Sound Transit currently gets only about 5% of its funds from toll box revenue. The best way to keep Central Link from continuing to be a huge financial burden on the area is to reject any extension that can’t be justified by potential increased ridership and to substitute buses for those trips that don’t need light rail capacity.
Sound Transits Central Link financial “hole” pales in comparison to the costs if their East Link program is allowed to continue. The money Sound Transit spends on Central Link extensions increases their debt and operating costs. The cross-lake portion of Sound Transit’s $2.8 billion 14-mile East Link extension not only has a huge cost it actually increases cross-lake congestion. (It also devastates part of Bellevue, forces the city to spend $200 million for a tunnel, and does nothing to relieve SR405 and I-90 corridor congestion.)
Simple mathematics shows that Sound Transits 2008 DEIS East Link light rail proposal of 4-car trains every 9 minutes will carry less than half the promised “up to 24,000 riders per hour”. Whatever capacity East Link has will be of dubious value since the vast majority of cross-lake commuters will have very little access to light rail trains. The only significant parking for I-90 corridor commuters will be a South Bellevue P&R with limited capacity and difficult access from 1-90.
Those with access to the P&R can currently commute into Seattle on a ST 550 bus that departs every 6-8 minutes during peak commute to reach International District in 16 minutes. (It includes stops on Mercer Island and at Rainier Ave South that increases commute times) ST550 average weekday ridership for the 2012, 4th quarter was less than 8700. Again, Sound Transit East Link projection for 50,000 daily riders by 2030 seems highly “speculative”.
The vast majority of those forced to use the outer roadways because of problems accessing light rail will face ever increasing congestion. Sound Transits own 2004 studies show their plans to add 4th lanes to the outer roadways won’t provide the capacity required to avoid increased congestion and commute times.
The real tragedy of East Link is the confiscation of the I-90 Bridge center roadway precludes the only viable way to accommodate Sound Transits projected 60% increase in cross-lake traffic, namely bus rapid transit or BRT. Sound Transit's refusal to seriously consider BRT as the “no-build” option for the I-90 Bridge center roadway is an historic blunder. Even a cursory analysis would have concluded moving non-transit HOV traffic to 4th lanes on the outer roadways and dividing the center roadway into inbound and outbound bus only lanes for BRT operation was infinitely better than light rail. Not only did BRT have 10 times light rail capacity at a fraction of light rails cost, it could have been in operation 15 years ago with express bus routes from every eastside P&R.
The $300 million spent in 2013 is just a down payment on an ever increasingly costly light rail extension program that will undoubtedly result in increasing operating deficits. Sound Transit needs to reassess its whole extension program. Those who will be disappointed by their inability to ride light rail in the future will be vastly outnumbered by those who will benefit if Sound Transits is “persuaded” to better use their revenue.
It would only take part of the $300 million to eliminate the need for 520 tolls or the recent attempts to add I-90 tolls. Additional money could be used to initiate cross-lake BRT and for 405 improvements to further reward Eastside residents who for years have seen the Sound Transit portions of their sales taxes used primarily for Central Link funding.
Sound Transit needs to recognize that light rail in Seattle will never have the 100,000 daily riders they promised and that any extensions beyond SeaTac in the south and the University in the north need to be justified by rationale ridership projections. They also need to acknowledge their error in ever selecting light rail for cross-lake mass transit. Their probable failure to do so is why I keep writing this blog.