About this blog

My name is Bill Hirt and I'm a candidate to be a Representative from the 48th district in the Washington State legislature. My candidacy stems from concern the legislature is not properly overseeing the WSDOT and Sound Transit East Link light rail program. I believe East Link will be a disaster for the entire eastside. ST will spend 5-6 billion on a transportation project that will increase, not decrease cross-lake congestion, violates federal environmental laws, devastates a beautiful part of residential Bellevue, creates havoc in Bellevue's central business district, and does absolutely nothing to alleviate congestion on 1-90 and 405. The only winners with East Link are the Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington and their labor unions.

This blog is an attempt to get more public awareness of these concerns. Many of the articles are from 3 years of failed efforts to persuade the Bellevue City Council, King County Council, east side legislators, media, and other organizations to stop this debacle. I have no illusions about being elected. My hope is voters from throughout the east side will read of my candidacy and visit this Web site. If they don't find them persuasive I know at least I tried.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Light Rail Extension’s Financial “Black Hole”

Several posts on this blog have detailed why the billions Sound Transit plans to spend on their light rail spine will do nothing to ease congestion on I-5 and will inevitably lead to gridlock on the I-90 Bridge outer roadways.  Even the Seattle Times, whose support enabled the funding, concluded:

The Sound Transit 3’s light-rail system, as it expands over the next 25 years, will do little to ease I-5 traffic, but it will give some commuters an escape hatch to avoid it”.

However, those hoping to take advantage of the “escape hatch” may be in for a big surprise.  The problem being that high light-rail operating costs over the longer routes will dwarf rational estimates for fare-box revenue.  Their “escape hatch” will either require very pricey tolls or be a financial “black hole” for the entire area’s transportation funds. 

Per 2016 budget, a light rail car costs $24.36 per mile to operate vs. $10.35 for buses.   Every mile Sound Transit extends light rail beyond the SeaTac in the South and UW station in the North adds about $200 to the round trip operating costs for a 4-car train. 

For example the 29-mile UW-to-Everett extensions will cost $5800 to operate. Terminating the route at Lynnwood would reduce round trips by 32.5 miles, reducing operating cost to $2550.  Terminating them at Northgate would reduce operating costs to $860 per trip.  It isn’t clear how many trains Sound Transit would route to Northgate or beyond to Lynnwood and Everett. 

Typical of Sound Transit they sold ST3 claiming the extension to Everett would add 37,000-45,000 daily riders to their earlier estimate the Lynnwood extension would add 63,000-74,000 riders.   The 100,000 -119,000 total is more than ten times the 8489 riders they averaged daily during the 1st quarter of 2017 with their four 510-513 bus routes between Everett and Seattle. 

What makes the Sound Transit Everett-to-UW projections particularly absurd is they wait until 2024 to begin adding a measly 500 parking stalls access to light rail. Apparently assuming more than100,000 commuters will chose to live within walking distance of light rail stations.  Worse, even a fraction of that number would result in full trains  before they ever reached UW during peak commute, limiting access for those who currently ride Central Link.

The Sound Transit bus schedule shows the departure times and the stops along the four routes. 510 provides 21 express routes daily during the morning and afternoon peak commute between Everett and Seattle. Their 512 bus schedule includes 54 round trips from Everett during “off-peak” hours from 9:00 am to 10:30 pm with 6 stops, including one at Lynnwood, along the way.  The 511 route provides 18 morning and afternoon peak hour trips from Ash Way P&R with stops at Lynnwood and Montlake Terrace.  The 513 route provides 11 buses from Everett with a stop at Montlake Terrace.   

Using Sound Transit operating costs the ~64 mile 510/512/513 bus round trip between Everett and Seattle costs $660.  The ~40 mile round trips from Ash Way to Seattle cost about $410.  The total daily operating costs for the 4 routes is $61,800, or $6.90 for each of the 8469 riders; matching the $6.87 for in 1st quarter 2017 ridership report.  Moreover the $3.50 two-zone fares, nearly all pay, provides 50% of the operating cost, nearly double Sound Transit average fare-box recovery. 

By comparison light rail operating costs will dwarf any rational fare box revenues. Again, without added parking, the only ones with access will be those who currently ride the 510-513 bus routes.  Sound Transit’s Lynnwood extension website promises one light rail train every 4 minutes during peak commute hours.  Assuming they have 15 trains an hour for 6 hours and half that rate for the other 12 gives a total of 180 trains a day.  (Currently Central Link schedules show 152 trips daily) 

The 180 daily 25.5-mile round trips to and from Lynnwood to UW will cost $112,000 daily.  If half those using the 510/513 routes rode light rail from Lynnwood to UW, the revenue from $3.50 tolls would be $14,800 leaving a $97,000 daily short fall.  (Assuming round trips generate tolls in only one direction.)  They could double that ridership and still have an $82,000 daily shortfall. 

By comparison bus operating costs for a 35-mile Lynnwood-to-Seattle round trip would be ~$350.  Rather than spending $2.1B to create a light rail system requiring huge subsidies they could add more bus routes.  For an additional $14,000 operating costs they could add 20 bus routes during the peak morning and afternoon commutes; essentially doubling current capacity. As ridership increases to use added capacity the $3.50 tolls for an additional 2000 morning and afternoon commuters would cover the added operating cost.  A small part of the $2.1B could be used to add parking for access to the bus routes.  More buses could be added to meet future growth.

The operating cost for using light rail to attract commuters from North of Lynnwood is only a part of the Everett extension problem.  They already have Sounder trains through Mukilteo to Seattle.  Why spend an additional $2.8 to $3B for light rail.  If they did, routing 180 light rail trains the 32.5 miles from Lynnwood to Everett and back would cost $570,000 daily.  Presumably even Sound Transit recognizes they can’t afford to route that many trains to Everett. 

However, the only way they can reasonably schedule fewer trains from Lynnwood to Everett than from Seattle to Lynnwood would be to have a separate light rail line between the two.  The Everett trains could be limited to two cars, halving trip costs, and run every 15 minutes during 6 hour peak times and 30 minutes off-peak for 48 two-car trains a day.  (About the same number of light rail cars as current buses)   

While they could add more cars or trains, the daily operating costs for even this limited Lynnwood-to-Everett extension would be $78,000.  If half those currently using the 4 routes would ride light rail between Everett and Lynnwood, the $3.50 tolls would again provide $14,800 leaving a $53,000 daily shortfall.  Again 20 additional buses could be added during morning and afternoon commutes between Everett and Seattle.  (They could be express routes stopping only at Ash Way P&R.)  The 60 mile round trips each would cost about $600 for a total daily cost of $24,000. $3.50 tolls for an additional 2000 morning and afternoon commuters cover more than half the operating costs leaving a $10,000 shortfall.  Again avoiding spending $2.8 to $3B on light rail construction.

The $3B spent on 15-mile extension to the Tacoma Dome will have similar fare- box-revenue shortfalls.  The fact it will have half the capacity of the Everett extensions and again duplicates existing Sounder service  makes it even more"problematic"

The bottom line is the billions Sound Transit will spend on light rail extensions along the 1-5 corridor for an “escape hatch” will create a financial black hole for the entire area’s transportation funds.   By comparison, spending a tiny fraction of ST3 funds on parking and bus service along I-5 corridor would reduce congestion with minimal fare box revenue shortfall increasing public transit; the only way to reduce congestion. 

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