All of Sound Transit’s “Where will light rail take you?” response to the legislature’s allowing them to ask voters approve the ST3 transportation package implies its all about extending light rail beyond Prop 1. After all, ST board chairman Dow Constantine made the following comment when the package was approved:
“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”
The ST3 package will purportedly provide an additional $1B annually, more than doubling their budgeted $933 M for 2015. They will definitely need it! They’ve already been forced to borrow $1.3B even though major construction has yet to begin. Unless they start getting the $1B each year beginning in 2017 they’ll be forced to borrow an additional $6.6B by 2023 to pay for the Prop 1 extensions. Paying off all those construction loans would require annual payments of $300M for 45 years.
Any lending institutions would be well advised to “question” ST ability to make those payments once light rail begins operation. Even with the truncated Prop 1 extensions light rail operating costs will dwarf fare box revenue. Excluding depreciation, a light rail car costs $23.04 per mile to operate (per ST 2015 budget), or $92.16 for an East Link 4-car train. Thus it will cost ST $6820 for the 74 mile round trip from Overlake to Lynnwood and back. ST East Link schedules call for 121 such trips each weekday for a daily cost of $825,000.
ST estimates 50,000 East Link riders per day by 2030, with 40,000 from those transferring from buses at S. Bellevue and Mercer Island light rail stations. ST has estimated 16,000 commuters will use the Northgate extension, but no estimates for those added by Lynnwood extension. Whatever the final numbers, its “unlikely” ridership will exceed the capacity of Central Link trains along the route. Any East Link ridership will simply reduce Central Link ridership with no net increase for Lynnwood extension.
Again, 40,000 of the 50,000 projected East Link riders will be from terminated bus routes. Since its unlikely those forced to transfer will be required to pay two fares, the only light rail revenue will be from the other 10,000. Assuming a $3.00 fare, gives $30,000 leaving a daily shortfall of $795,000. If weekend levels are half that, the weekly operating shortfall from East Link will be $4.77M or $248M annually. (It’s hardly worth mentioning that depreciation will add $30 million.) The higher light rail operating costs ($23 vs $10) means other extensions replacing bus routes will also result in higher deficits despite the rail car capacity advantages (148 vs 119)
The bottom line is the ST current push for ST3 funding “likely” has very little to do with extensions beyond Prop 1. They recognize lenders may be “reluctant” to lend an additional $6.6B to construct a light rail system, that when completed will require a huge subsidy (from somewhere) along with the $300M annually debt payment. (Particularly when they learn projected light rail fare box revenue for 2015 was $16M)
It’s not improbable a failure of ST3 would mean the end of Prop 1 extensions. As far as I’m concerned it can’t happen soon enough.