After diligently ignoring the good news only the day before, the Times at least acknowledged the positive in the much more significant annual report of the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel (pdf).

Find out more about the panel itself here.

The report is an outstanding, concise, independent summary of the state of the agency.  Here are a few tidbits that jumped out at me:

  • Despite troubles in the Beacon Hill tunnel, Central Link is still on schedule to open July 3, with Airport Link to follow on December 31.
  • The panel singles out Mayor Nickels for his leadership in getting proposition 1  passed.  Together with Senator Murray, he really is the politician most responsible for the region’s continued forward progress on rail.
  • The Star Lake Freeway station has been scrapped due to budgetary limitations.  That’s disappointing because Star Lake is the eventual terminus of South Link, and a clean connection with express buses would be really nice.  Here’s hoping they find a way before 2020.
  • Since the state has deferred the appropriation for its share of the I-90 HOV project to 2017-2019, East Link is in serious danger of being significantly delayed.  I lost faith in Olympia a long time ago, but hopefully Joni Earl’s request to Congress gets somewhere.
  • Although it isn’t the state’s fault, there are similar budget shortfalls that threaten Sounder extension to Lakewood.  That’s also on Ms. Earl’s stimulus wish list.
  • ORCA, though not an ST project, may slip beyond the July 3 light rail opening, and there are still security concerns.
  • Prudent financial policy has largely insulated Sound Transit from any catastrophe related to the financial meltdown, at least for now.
  • Operating costs are spiraling up quickly, but the panel is unsure if that’s an organic result of service growth or inadequate controls at Sound Transit.  They hope to have answers by the end of 2009.
  • The Express Bus service contracts with Metro, Community Transit, and Pierce Transit are up for renewal this year.  Watch out for those three, especially Metro, to attempt a shakedown in order to patch their own budget holes.
  • Tacoma and Central Link operating costs are a bit higher than we would like.  Meanwhile, Sounder costs per hour are coming down and there’s scope for further reductions.
  • ST is raising a significant security force.  That’s good news to me, although the COP has some legitimate concerns about the way the plan was developed.

It’s been this blog’s position since STB’s inception that Sound Transit is a well-managed agency that provides the fastest path to achievement of our regional transit objectives.   That remains the case, but obviously nothing is perfect, and it’s refreshing to hear constructive, informed, non-hysterical criticism of the agency that also acknowledges where things are going well.

20 Replies to “The State of Sound Transit”

    1. Yeah It’ll be almost done, just staring in the face of all the travelers, but will be going through the finishing touches

      1. it might be interesting to see if ST could possibly lean on the contractors a little bit and see an opening a little bit earlier to catch some of the holiday crush.

        Question: What are the 174, 194, and the 594 like around that time?

      2. The 174 runs every 30 mins or so throughout the day and later into the night than the 194 which shuts up around 10pm from both ends of the line. The 594 goes to Tacoma/Lakewood and doesn’t run via SeaTac Airport. ( don’t have the schedules in front of me, but the 174 runs for about 21-22 hours out of every 24

        Having said this, by the end of the year, we might not be seeing any more of the 194 as I believe there are plans to scrap the Seattle end of it, but there will still be something running from Federal Way to the airport I think.

    2. Yeah, December 31st just about gets it in in time for drunken revelry at the end of the year and allow ST to claim it as a milestone for 2009!

      Having recently taken the Lunch Bus tour, there does seem to still be a lot of work out there to complete at both ends of the tunnel and at Beacon Hill. I am not trying to play Mike Lindblom’s game from the Seattle Times because I almost 100% detest and deplore with every fibre of my being his articles on public transit in Seattle, nor do I want to dampen expectations, but I do think that the final push to complete the initial segment needs to look more obvious at this point in time on the tunnel and Beacon Hill segments.

  1. Kudos to Sound Transit for even having an oversight committee. If Metro or the Port of Seattle had a similar accountability mechanism, there’s a very good chance the problems each agency is experiencing now could have been averted.

    1. The Port of Seattle has an Elected Board of Commissioners (the appointed, and very well paid Executive director actually runs the Port). The COP is a good thing but it would be better if it were elected or at least appointed by elected officials (that would assure sub area representation). Having ST appoint the COP is a bit like having the fox watch the hen house.

      FWIW, there has been plenty of questionable activity by the Port over the years. For a long time nobody seemed to give a damn about the election of Port Commissioners. That’s changed and the campaigns result in a healthy forum to educate the public about the decisions the Port is making.

      1. The COP is appointed by elected officials. The board of ST is comprised of 17 elected officials plus the state DOT head, who is appointed by the governor. The board appoints the COP.

      2. I stand corrected. While the board for ST is not directly elected to that position it is by charter elected positions which form the board. The way the COP is chosen and confirmed looks good.

        Now that I know at least one of the things the state secretary of transportation is tasked to do I’ll pay more attention to that election. I do have to question the county exec being required to serve on the board. King Co. pays the most…biggest county, lots to do, it should pay more. I thing the county exec already has enough dished up to worry about governing ST.

      3. I should also point out that the Sound Transit board isn’t made up of only people who like Sound Transit. Ron Sims is on the board, and he wasn’t a fan of the last proposal.

        And for a long time Rob McKenna, who hates transit of all shapes and sizes, was on the board.

  2. And kudos to Martin for delving into these issues. One big question for ST in the coming years: to stem the increase in operating costs, would it be prudent to cast themselves free from contracts negotiated by the local transit agencies? Ron Sims is probably on his way out the door. But his legacy has been one of capitulating to the unions. I wonder if a tougher negotiating position could save a lot of money over the long term. Afterall, the high costs associated with running a public transit system are directly related to operations and maintenance.

    The Oversight Committee is concerned with ST’s escalating operations budget. But, from what I can tell, ST doesn’t have much control over the variables which affect that budget. This should probably change.

    1. So, for example, have Sound directly operate their buses instead of Metro, for example operating the 550?

      If it’s cheaper (then again, I’m sure the ATU will complain loudly)

    2. I don’t think Sound Transit wants to get in the business of operating its transit services directly. For one there is a lot of infrastructure they’d have to duplicate in a rather big hurry (at least on the bus side). For another such actions would likely lead to antagonistic relations both with the transit unions and with area transit agencies.

      I wouldn’t say Sims “capitulated” to the unions. To a large extent you get what you pay for. Do we really want to turn Metro and the services they operate into the Wal-Mart of transit?

      I don’t have hard data in front of me but I’d be really surprised if pay and benefits at Metro are all that out of line compared to similarly sized transit agencies.

  3. How do you compare operating costs? The numbers I’ve seen claiming ST costs are higher are always based on per passenger trip. ST operates on average much longer routes so this metric is meaningless. ST also runs way nicer buses.

    There’s the issue of ST to a great extent only operating during peak periods which means less trips during the day to help amortize costs. I suppose the buses sitting idle is capitol costs not operating cost but more dead head trips might account for higher fuel and salary costs.

  4. Can someone please explain to me what privacy concerns are linked with the ORCA card? Are people really that paranoid?

      1. Yeah, I’ve seen that, and I find it pretty ridiculous.

        Oh no, some enterprising ‘hacker’ will see what time I go to work every morning…

  5. Who exactly is responsible for implementing the ORCA smart card? If it is not Sound Transit, then what will happen when Link starts operating and the system is not ready.

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