This post examines what could happen if Central Link extensions beyond University and SeaTac were cancelled. As the 6/19/13 post explains, cancelling East Link would eliminate light rail devastation along the route, and could allow part of the EL money ($91 million in 2013) to be diverted to eliminate the tolls needed for 520 rebuild and to initiate BRT service for improved commuting throughout east side.
Truncating Central Link would have a major impact on transportation infrastructure spending and future indebtedness. For example, the 2013 budget allocates about $210 million for CL extensions beyond SeaTac and University. However, spending for the Prop 1 extensions must expand to nearly $2 billion annually over the next 10 years to complete the projected $17.9 billion (2007 dollars) cost for the EL and CL extensions.
Even the modest $210 million spent on the extensions in 2013 will result in a projected budget shortfall of $264 million. Since income is not expected to grow significantly over the coming years, cancelling the extension would avoid a dramatic increase in debt. It would also eliminate the need to purchase additional train cars and other equipment and the increased operating costs with the longer routes.
The combination of the high operating costs with light rail ($45.60 per mile for 2 car train) and the longer routes will require huge subsidies for both extensions. The 12.8-mile Lynnwood extension costs over $1167 for a round trip. The 11-mile Federal Way extension adds over a $1000 to round trip costs for the current Seattle to SeaTac route. Both routes would have to average about 165 boarders-per-round-trip to maintain the 2013 $6.07 cost-per-boarding.
It’s not clear whether all of the approximately 120 daily light rail round trips would extend to Lynnwood and/or Federal Way. Lynnwood Route SR511 in 2012 averaged about 4520 boarders per weekday. The Federal Way route ST577/578 averaged about 2860 boarders. Neither extension will ever provide more than a tiny fraction of boarders needed to maintain current costs per boarder. Thus, truncating CL would avoid a substantial increase in the subsidies required to operate light rail.
What’s particularly absurd about both extensions is the fact the 35-37 min. commute times into Seattle for both ST511 and ST577/578 routes are far shorter than those anticipated for light rail. (The shorter commute times far outweigh light rail’s slightly better on-time performance; 96% vs. 91%.) The Lynnwood extension's stop at the Northgate T/C could obviously add additional boarders. However Metro Route 41 already provides excellent service into Seattle with shorter commute times at a fraction of light rail’s operating cost. (assuming ST doesn’t “persuade” Metro to stop the route.)
In conclusion, there might be some justification for incurring the huge construction debt if the CL extensions improved efficiency or reduced transit times. However, while they probably will not devastate neighborhoods like EL, they will necessitate huge increases in subsidies and longer transit times. In this time of serious transportation budget problems it's almost obscene Sound Transit would continue with such a project. The goal of this blog is to stop it.