To comply with a legislative directive, Sound Transit and the Puget Sound Regional Council conducted a preliminary feasibility study of Eastside Commuter Rail, the results of which were published last month. There’s a summary here (pdf), and you can wade into the gory detail here.
For those of you not paying attention, through a bit of financial kabuki the Port of Seattle worked a deal to purchase the BNSF rail line highlighted at left for use as a trail and (possibly) a commuter rail corridor.
The Sound Transit 2 package budgeted a $50 million contribution to the capital costs of a line if a private operator agreed to assume the other costs. If no such partnership materialized, the $50 million would be redirected towards buses in the I-405 corridor.
The report predicts (and these numbers are very preliminary) that ridership could be as high as 6,000 per day, with capital costs of $1-1.3 billion, and annual operating costs of $24-32 million. Those numbers are based on running 33 trains per day in each direction on weekdays. This volume is possible because, unlike our current Sounder trips, passenger trains here wouldn’t play second fiddle to BNSF freight. By comparison, the currently planned Sounder trips, when complete, will have cost less than $1 billion in capital and about $30 million a year to run.
If a partner can be found to take ST’s $50 million and cover the other billion, this project could be an absolute steal for the region. If you look at ST’s most recent ridership report, South Sounder averaged 9,296 boardings per weekday and North Sounder a mere 1,132. It’s true that they have far fewer than 33 round trips per day, but they cover the highest-ridership periods, and the scheduling issues with BNSF can’t merely be wished away. $50 million to increase Sounder ridership by 50-60% would absolutely be worth it.
However, the requirement for a private investor is a hugely difficult one. Even with a ticket in the $10-20 range, it will take decades for an operator to merely recover the capital expenditure, to say nothing of debt service and operating costs.
Furthermore, although the cost estimate does include replacement of the entire track, the study did not evaluate all bridges along the route, some of which raise serious concerns. Inevitably, as mitigation costs to litigious neighbors start spiraling, we’ll see those costs rise.
Note also that the area under study does not extend through downtown Renton to connect with the existing Sounder line. Even if money were found to pay a larger public share, a significant segment of the line is outside the Sound Transit district and therefore would require funding from a non-Sound Transit source.
Since Eastside commuter rail has often been used as a stick to hit East Link, it’s also worthwhile to point out that East Link, while costing between $2.8 and $4.5 billion, is conservatively estimated to result in about 45,000 riders per day.
I haven’t yet reviewed anything but the summary, but feel free to post nuggets from the main report in the comments.