The following comment in the Sunday Seattle Times by King County Executive and Sound Transit Chairman Dow Constantine exemplifies his inability to recognize light rail limitations.
“What we can do is create light rail to take you where you want to go, when you want to go, on time, every time, for work, for play, for school”
He did so in response to the legislature’s passage of legislation that, if approved, would allow Sound Transit to collect an additional $1B in annual revenue. It would more than double their total 2015 projected $933M revenues, of which only $16M comes from light rail fares. It supposedly is only for 15 years, but the .5% sales tax voters approved in 2008 and was expected to eventually end has now been declared “permanent”.
The likely reason Sound Transit is asking for the money in 2016 rather than 2020 is they recognize without it they'll need $4-5B in loans to fund the already truncated Prop 1 extensions. Those loans would be in addition to their existing $1.3B loan requiring they pay $50M annually for 45 years to pay amortize.
Constantine’s statement ignores the reality that light rail will never be able to take “everyone when and were they want to go”. The costs for creating a light rail system can only be justified when it has sufficient capacity to accommodate large numbers of commuters and where there are large numbers who both live and work within easy access of this capacity.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) is an example of what works. During the peak commute, every 4 minutes, light rail trains, each with up to 10 cars, cross the Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco with Oakland and other cities in the East Bay and suburbs in northern San Mateo County. During 2014 BART averaged 422,490 weekday riders.
Sound Transit’s Prop 1 is no BART. What was promised to have more than 100,000 riders prior to the vote in 2008 currently averages 31,000. The billions spent on Prop 1 will never provide the capacity or the access needed to significantly reduce the area’s 4th worst congestion in the country. ST3 likely will spend more money with the same result.
In 2004, the Puget Sound Regional Council concluded light-rail in Seattle was limited by the “bus tunnel” to one 4-car train every 4 minutes. They assumed each 74-seat car could accommodate 148 riders for a total of 8880 rphpd (riders per hour per direction) presumably split between East Link and Sea Tac. Even this limited capacity far exceeds current transit ridership along I-5. Thus, Sound Transit is going to have to create more P&R lots (not clear where funding comes from) with bus connections to Northgate or other access points.
While any added transit riders would reduce I-5 congestion, Northgate won’t begin operating for 6 years. The added P&R’s could be available far sooner and would attract even more commuters if the buses took them directly into Seattle. A 70-ft articulated bus can accommodate up to 119 riders (sitting and standing). Thus Sound Transit could achieve the same capacity as light rail (8880 rphpd) with 75 buses per hour. Rather than spend billions constructing light rail extensions to Northgate and beyond, part of that money could be used to fund the added P&R’s.
The direct bus service would be particularly attractive if one of the two current “crowded high occupancy lanes” along I-5, were limited to buses. The lanes, with capacity of more than 1000 buses per hour, could be operating in a month for a minuscule amount of money. (Part of that capacity could be used by +3 HOV until ST adds more buses and parking.) The resulting commute times would be far shorter than light rail. They are the only way to provide the capacity needed to attract the numbers of commuters needed to ease I-5 congestion.
Not only does light rail cost billions to construct, light rail trains cost more than buses to operate. The Sound Transit 2015 budget projects a light rail car costs $23.04 per mile compared to $10.03 for buses. At those rates a light car train carrying 148 riders costs I5.6 cents per mile per rider vs. 8.4 cents for buses carrying 119 riders. While the 70 ft bus may have somewhat higher operating costs it’s clear that contrary to “popular” opinion, light rail cars cost more than buses to operate.
The high train costs means Sound Transit intention to require commuters to use light rail rather than buses for part of the commute will increase trip costs. Unless commuters are forced to pay two fares the bus/train combination will increase operating deficit. The cost for acquiring the added buses would also be a fraction of the cost of light rail cars.
The only limitation on bus ridership would be providing sufficient P&R’s close to where people live and dedicated drop off and pick up locations near where they work. Again, the additional P&R lots would cost a tiny fraction of light rail and could be providing access to transit years before the Northgate extension begins operation. Sound Transit could expedite plans to limit 2nd and 4th Ave to buses when East Link begins operating to facilitate bus egress and access.
Constantine needs to recognize there is no justification to spend billions extending light rail beyond the UW stadium station. A small part of the Northgate extension funds should be used to create a T/C near the stadium station over riding objections from UW officials. The T/C would provide an interface between 520 commuters and light rail attracting thousands of commuters from both sides of the lake. The expectation for those commuters is presumably what led to Sound Transit’s initial projection that the UW extension would add 71,000 light rail riders by 2030. They need to make it happen.
The Central Link extension towards Federal Way and East Link extension to Overlake are even more “problematic” since they share the limited 8880 rphpd through the tunnel. East Link is particularly absurd since Sound Transit confiscates I-90 Bridge center roadway lanes capable of 1000 buses per hour for light rail service that will consist of one 4-car train every 8 minutes. Even worse Sound Transit’s “Integrated Transit Service” will require all cross-lake transit riders use this limited capacity light rail service for their commutes into and out of Seattle.
Constantine’s comment “regional leaders are discussing bus rapid transit concepts” reflects a belated acceptance of BRT. It’s basically what limiting one of the two I-5 HOV lanes to buses would provide. They could have initiated BRT service along I-405 years ago and reduced congestion. The hundreds of millions and years spent on East Link could have been avoided if, 15 years ago, Sound Transit had moved non-transit HOV to 4th lanes on the I-90 Bridge outer roadway and initiated two-way BRT operation on the center roadway.
The bottom line is Constantine and apparently the rest of the Sound Transit board need to recognize spending billions on light rail extensions will do little to ease the areas congestion. Also that BRT can do more than just ease congestion on parts of I-405. The entire area has already paid a price that will only escalate if they continue on the same path.