Martin noted the cost and ridership numbers Sound Transit and the PSRC came up in a study of commuter rail on the Eastside BNSF lines. Comparing these numbers to previous estimates by pro-Eastside BNSF groups and to the costs of the services Sound Transit is operating or planning to, it becomes apparent that passenger rail service on that line is never going to materialize.
The State legislature mandated Sound Transit and the PSRC study the corridor after Cascadia Center of the Discovery Institute – a pro-Eastside BNSF Rail, anti-light rail group – studied the corridor and said they would be able to build commuter rail on the line with $278 million in capitol costs and a $15.4 million operations with a 5,000 rider projection, which is the same “baseline” estimate Sound Transit had in their study. Other groups came up with similar estimates, for example HDR Engineering said it would take $225~$250 million in capital costs. At these prices building the line seemed very cheap, the operation costs were just a bit more than those of Sounder’s and the whole package seemed like a good deal.
Then comes the Sound Transit PSRC study, which says what I’ve been saying all along: this isn’t as cheap as it looks. At $1.1~$1.3 billion, it costs more than all capital expenditures for Sounder, and some of those aren’t even finished yet: the transit center at Tukwila Station, the D-to-M street bypass, among others, haven’t been completed. Even short of these rider-generating improvements, Sounder has more riders for the cost than the BNSF rail line.
The operations costs of the line are staggering as well. At a cost $24 million per annum (the low estimate) and 6,000 riders per day (the highest estimate, the one that includes truncating bus service on 405), the service costs more than three times as much per rider as East Link will. East Link is supposed to get a little more than 45,000 riders per day, operate 20 hours a day, and have an $80 million annual operating budget. The “average” case, ie, the baseline ridership estimate for the BNSF line (5015 riders per day) and the middle range of the operating costs ($27 million), has a per rider cost that is higher than that of Sounder North, which has been widely criticized for its extreme costs. Put another way, the Eastside BNSF is $16 a trip at the cheapest, and $22 in the average case, and over $30 per trip in the worst case.
Even if there was serious interest there is no money. Sound Transit has put aside less than 5% of the capital costs. It would be amazing if a generous benefactor or a group of investors gave $1 billion for the line, but that won’t happen. A private investor might have been willing to put in $200 million if the operating costs were $15.4 million a year and there was a subsidy, but no investor would put $1 billion to build a train line that will cost at least $16 a trip to operate.
In summary, the BNSF was supposed to be a good deal: it was supposed to cost a lot less to build than Light Rail and get a good number of riders. Proponents said through a public-private partnership, it would take very little public money to build rail there, and that in comparison East Link was a bad investment. The were clearly wrong, BNSF Eastside Rail costs far too much to build, and still to much to operate. There’s no hope of a public-private partnership here, and thus there’s no hope of a rail line.