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Sound Transit’s 1st Quarter System Ridership Report is out. Highlights:

  • Central Link weekday boardings up 24% year-on-year, though well below budget estimates.
  • Sounder ridership flat, except for a big drop on the north route (i.e. mudslides)
  • Tacoma Link and paratransit both up about 10%.
  • ST Express up about 6%, though individual routes diverge wildly. The 555, 556, and 560 had big drops in ridership.
  • Link cost per boarding, in the low season, back above that for ST Express.

37 Replies to “ST 1Q 2011 Ridership”

  1. Link cost per boarding, in the low season,….what does that mean???

    isnt the cost to operate the bust the same no matter how many people board???

    whether its 1 or 1000??? the gas price doenst change due to that. the driver salary doesnt, the maintnence cost arent really affected?????

    shouldnt you jus tsay teh cost to operate the bus is “this much”?? and if you want to throw in how much was taken in in fares that might give an idea of ridership and revenues, if a public transit route even has revenues.

    1. It’s cost/boarding. Looking at cost independent of ridership doesn’t make sense.

    2. In the low-ridership season, it is expected that the cost per boarding for Link will be higher than that of a bus because efficiencies of scale are not in effect.

      You’re right, the direct cost to operate a route does not change much from day to day; however, the effective cost decreases as more people pay to ride.* “Revenue” is a vastly different concept from “profit,” which is what you seem to be talking about in your last paragraph. Profit is the income remaining from revenues collected after expenses are paid. Transit services are not expected to have a 100% (or greater) farebox recovery rate, hence why they are public agencies which receive government subsidies.

      (* I’m not an economist, so “direct” and “effective” are used as common-sense terms, not with any strict economic definition intended.)

      1. Not to nitpick, but the words you are looking for are fixed costs (running the bus) and marginal costs (the cost for each additional rider). With each additional rider there are more riders to pay for the fixed costs.

        Fixed costs include the driver and depreciation/wear and tear on the vehicle.

        Marginal costs include the minuscule amount of extra electricity used by pushing around a slightly heavier vehicle.

  2. Understandable that the numbers for the Northline are in the tank due to the mudslides, but I think that despite those snafus the ridership is definitely changing.

    To illustrate my point, on Friday aboard 1702 I didn’t recognize a single person in the car I ride in. There were definitely people who were aboard that don’t rode often, but were this day.

    Nice to see, maybe more will show over time. A little advertising wouldn’t hurt.

  3. Any ideas on why the 555, 556, and 560 ridership went down? Especially curious which part of the 560- Bellevue to Sea-Tac or Sea-Tac to West Seattle?

    Mark Dublin

    1. This puzzles me, too, because I’m a daily 556 rider and have observed my regular buses become more patronized since ST put D60LFs (or variants thereof) on almost all of the runs to relieve standing-room-only conditions that were commonplace between Eastgate and BTC on 40′ Gilligs.

      1. I forget the name, but there’s a law of statistics that says that people will always observe a service as being more used than it is, because there are simply more people around to observe the service when it’s busy than when it’s not.

        For example, assume that a bus has two runs, one with 20 passengers and one with 80. 80% of passengers will observe the bus as being standing room only, even though only 50% of buses are full.

    2. The 560, in particular, had the service between the Alaska Junction and Burien TC reduced to hourly.

  4. What’s with the cost per boarding on ST Express. 2009 = $6.76, 2010 = $5.95 and 2011 = $6.97. Diesel prices were at $2.00/gal at the end of Q1 2009, hovered near $3.00/gal in q1 2010 and reached $4.00 this year so fuel price and cost of boarding don’t seem to track closely at all. Boardings per trip and per revenue hour declined from 2009 to 2010 and fuel prices increased so how did cost per boarding drop by 12% ? Then with almost identical boarding metrics between 2010 and 2011 cost per boarding jumped 17%.

    2-Cost per boarding is calculated as the total actual operating costs (including Agency overhead) before depreciation divided by the total number of riders.

    All I can guess is that “Agency overhead” is jerking this around.

    1. What’s with the cost per boarding on ST Express.

      Hmmm, I guess everyone else is just as mystified.

  5. As a daily 511 rider I’ll be looking forward to seeing the numbers on 510/511 buses in the 2Q report, since the doubling in frequency (during much of the day) accompanying the Mountlake Terrace freeway median stop. As a reverse-commuter I tend to see about the same number of riders in buses on already-existing runs and very few riders on the new runs. If they’ve doubled frequency but only increased ridership in the “forward” commute direction that would hurt the per-boarding cost of 510/511 service… but that analysis wouldn’t show the benefit of removing CT commuter service. Hopefully it’s more efficient overall — it’s certainly a nice service improvement for all users of those routes.

  6. According to the report linked to in this article, ST budgeted for 2,494,374 boardings on Link for the first quarter of this year, but got only 1,653,134. That means that ST’s projection for the first quarter of 2011 was 841,240 higher than they achieved, or that their projection for that quarter was too high by about 51 percent. It does not seem to me that ST is very good at projecting Link ridership.

    For a really good analysis of Link ridership, go to John Niles’ site:

    The first graph on this webpage shows Link daily ridership in its first year of operation (green lines) compared to Link daily ridership in its second year of operation (red lines). As you can see, the difference between year 1 and year 2 ridership is getting smaller by the month. In fact, for the very latest days charted, Link 14-day average daily ridership this year has fallen below Link 14-day average daily ridership for the same period last year. I don’t expect that to continue to be the case, but I find it surprising that it happened for even a few days.

    1. June is the last month ST can get a really good month of data ‘in the can’ to lock in their FTA “Before and After” report card.
      These look at various planning assumptions for gaining Federal funding in New Starts programs, and is spelled out in detail as part of the Full Funding Grant Agreement signed in 2003. There are five specific areas included in the study, two of which are capital costs and ridership projections. ST projected 42,500 for Central Link, and raised it to 47,000 per weekday for the extension to Seatac Airport by 2020, excluding any additional ridership from other segments, such as ULink. Link should be close to those numbers by now, excluding normal growth of about 2-3% per year between now and 2020.
      This was considered to be a ‘Minimal Operable Segment’ for federal funding.
      This report is transmitted to the Chairs of both House and Senate Transportation Committees, and a cover letter from the FTA Administrator generally focuses on two specific criteria. Cost and Ridership.
      A poor showing on the first project, combined with hostile Republican Chairs could spell real trouble for North and East Link.

      1. I spoke to the project director for North Link at one of the open houses recently. Contrary to what I posted here previously (told to me by someone else in a different department at ST, which itself contradicted what their outreach people told me via email), neither of those projects will be submitted to New Starts. East Link will not go up for any major federal funding. There will probably be some alternate means to get some federal funding for North Link. Nonetheless, ST doesn’t need federal money to finish North Link, it would just save local taxpayers money.

      2. Based on ST2 ‘Financial Plan’ (page A-5), North Link in the N. Subarea is budgeted for $351 million, and E.Link is expecting $105 million (2006 $$). Bonding for all of ST2 will be 3.847 Billion.

      3. Right, that’s $315 mil for UW to Shoreline. If that number were $0, we could still easily build to Northgate. It’s absolutely true that the North Corridor HCT (north of Northgate) is dependent on federal funding — ST states this up front on the North Corridor project page. But that project can’t even break ground until Northgate is finished. There is time between now and when that projects needs an FFGA for the University Link segment and a slow economic recovery to redeem Link’s ridership.

        The $105 mil for East Link supports my suggestion that it will not go up for New Starts; that’s $10 mil a year over the course of the 10+ years they’ll be building it. They will be gunning for small grants from CMAQ/fixed guideway and other pools of money. According to their community outreach people, they’ve already been awarded $25 mil from the FTA as part of the EIS process (I don’t know if that counts towards the $105 mil or not.)

      4. Some back of the envelope calculations. East Link, if you take the preliminary budget estimate as $1.9 B in 2007 dollars will run around $2.5 B in year of expenditure (assuming inflation over the next decade is on par with the last ten years). Adding what’s in the subarea account to yearly surpluses there will be about $1.2 B or roughly half of the construction cost that can be paid for out of pocket. Of course the crystal ball starts to get a bit fuzzy here but let’s say the percentage of surplus revenue remains the same as it is currently. Yes, chances are it will go up greater than the rate of inflation because of economic growth but it’s also almost inevitable that O&M costs for existing and additional future service will also exceed the rate of inflation. But if we just take the current $80 million and adjust for inflation that would put the yearly surplus in 2022 at ~$105 million a year. The additional cost of financing Link construction costs will be in the range of $60-90 million per year (debt of a billion dollars give or take assuming $200-300 million in Federal/State/Local contributions and interest rates 5-7%). If operational costs are the same as the currently Central Link segment ($50/yr) that would mean an O&M expense of ~$70 million per year that eats into the surplus. But fare revenue will offset some of that. If the farebox recovery ratio is only 50% that leave $70 million to cover debt; right in the middle of the $60-90 million range based on an interest rates of 5-7%. If the farebox recovery ratio is only 25% then there’s just a little over $50 million left which starts to get dicey. Nobody can know what the economy will look like over the next 10-20 years. Surely there will be ups and downs maybe of the magnitude we’ve just seen, maybe more maybe less. The only thing that can guarantee a sound financial footing would be federal grants covering 25-50% of the construction cost which makes the performance of Central Link and North Link crucial to the full implementation of the ST2 plan.

      1. The first one in 2003 when applying for federal funding, and again in 2007 when applying for Airport Link funding.

      2. So both estimates were made before anybody realized we were about to enter the worst recession in over 70 years. Any reasonable criticism of Sound Transit’s ridership estimates at this point would also need to look at where the economy is today.

      3. I wish it were that easy to dismiss, but read what Metro reports in their latest GM report on ridership.
        “Ridership was negatively affected by a 5 percent decrease in local employment,
        a 24 percent decrease in local gasoline prices,
        and a transit fare increase in early 2009.
        Combined ridership on Metro and Metro operated Sound Transit service was 119.9 million, a decrease of about 5.5 percent from 2008. Metro was in the middle of the pack for changes in ridership compared with other
        peers in the top 30 bus/trolley bus agencies nationwide.”
        So I’ll give you that ridership was down about 6% for all the reasons you state. How do you account for the other 35% in loss of ridership?
        What’s important, is that ST2 competes in an open arena for limited dollars. A poor showing doesn’t help their case for future grants, when other New Starts are performing far better.

      4. Thanks for digging up the numbers, Mike. That all matches with my “gut feeling” but didn’t have Metro’s ridership numbers handy. I’m sure the utter implosion of development along the line can’t help. I’m very curious to see how it all looks in a year or two. If the Station at Othello Park is a success and other developers start in, long term ridership will improve although sadly not enough for ST’s next grant application.

        I’m also curious to see if ADU building activity increases in the peripheral areas along the line. Once East Link has started construction, I’m thinking about adding an apartment over our garage. I’m curious to see if there are a noticeable number of other folks doing the same thing.

  7. Can someone explain the rationale of why the 511 is stopping at Mountlake Terrace, but not the 510? Is it really worth skipping over an entire neighborhood to get to Everett 20-30 seconds faster? If it is, why was the freeway station even built in the first place?

    If both 510 and 511 stopped there and there schedules were adjusted to be evenly spaced, we could have a combined 15-minute headway 7 days a week, rather than the 30 minute headway we have on Saturday and Sunday today.

    1. I’ve wondered that too. If no-one here knows, I’ll ask someone at ST this week.

    2. I agree that it’s weird to skip Mountlake Terrace, which is such a fast stop. I only really see Mountlake Terrace riding in the reverse-commute direction on the 511 every day, and almost nobody uses it that way. Would there be a significant boarding delay if “forward” 510 buses stopped there? It couldn’t be any worse than the stoplight they have to go through at NE 45th!

      I was thinking on the ride home today what it would take to get 510 buses stopping at all the stops between Seattle and Everitt (resulting in 7.5-minute headways much of the day between Seattle and Lynnwood). The main problem is making it fast for buses to get in and out of Lynnwood without sacrificing convenient transfers. We’d need a totally new bus exit with a separate approach from each direction (instead of a sharp turn and stop sign above the freeway median). We’d need a separate platform, probably elevated, to keep through-running buses out of the current muck. Off-board payment would be an necessary to keep things moving (off-board payment on ST Express would be great in every way).

      And by that point it’s 2023, I’m totally bald, and the Link station that looks exactly like this except with trains is open (it acheives great headways by serving population and employment centers instead of the freeway). Also by this point ST is planning a subway that does for the Aurora corridor what U-Link/North Link does for the I-5 corridor — with stops near Seattle Center (or SLU, probably more important), on Queen Anne hill somewhere, in the heart of Fremont, and *then* going up Aurora to wherever, unhindered by the arbitrary county line (hi RapidRide/Swift). Also, either we all have flying cars or we’re all dead from climate change or society has collapsed due to energy shortages.

      1. By 2023 we’ll either be building an extension from Northgate, either elevated along I-5 or Aurora, then on via Mountlake Terrace to Lynnwood. Once Link gets to that point, there will presumably be a radical restructuring of I-5 bus service.

        Aurora isn’t going to get a subway in any case — too expensive, and there’s enough ROW available for at-grade or elevated.

      2. The 511 runs four times an hour midday. The 510 runs twice an hour midday. We could have ten-minute headway by interlining, for 45th, 145th, and Mountlake Terrace. Lynnwood would have uneven headway. All the stops in Everett would have half-hour headway.

        What does it take? Convince ST staff to recommend it, and then convince the board to accept the staff recommendation.

        I’d avoid any major capital infrastructure changes, though, as the Link extension projects are already short-funded as it is.

        Of course, ridership failing to fill up enough seats may mean dropping back to 15-minute headway, given ST’s penchance for ruthless cutting of underperforming runs.

      3. @Bruce, Brent: Yeah, the point of my second paragraph there is that big construction projects for ST Express buses at Lynnwood don’t make sense with Link coming there in ~12 years. Off-board payment would be great even without any other improvements — getting off a northbound bus at Lynnwood is like getting off an airplane. I’m sure some of the other suburban transit centers are similar?

        The problem with transit on Aurora is just like the problem with I-5. A surface line (or a cheap elevated line) can only do what express buses can do — drive past areas that could be really well served by rapid transit without serving them. That’s OK for a cheap program like RapidRide, but if you’re going to do much more than that it’s silly to drive right past Fremont, an existing pedestrian-heavy area with mixed uses and density. It will take real money to do it right (especially if doing it right includes serving Queen Anne on the way, which I imagine is super hard). Any rapid transit serving Fremont will at least need a new ship canal crossing, ‘eh? And if the wallet’s already out… but that’s straying from the point.

        I’m assuming here that we’re not going to twist North Link over to Aurora once past Northgate, and then back to Lynnwood (which, I’ve heard, is investing big in TOD despite being less than pedestrian-friendly ATM). If there’s only ever going to be one real rapid transit route up north that might be the best way to do it, but it’s not a very direct way to go for those gains.

      4. All the investment at Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace is an exercise in putting the cart before the horse (and perhaps a bad side affect of subarea equity).

        They should have chosen the Link routing first. Having it go over to Aurora and then back over to I-5 would be absurd, and cause a huge loss in public confidence in ST’s ability to do planning.

        *If* Link cuts over to Aurora north of Northgate, it needs to stay on Highway 99 all the way to Everett. The I-5 corridor could still get BRT service to Northgate.

        But if Link twists back and forth like a milk run, then choice riders will continue to insist on taking express buses to downtown Seattle instead.

      5. As for the payment system, if downtown Seattle is converted to a POP zone, then alighting from the bus in Lynnwood would be a much faster two-door drill.

        Speeding up boarding could be done by assigning ORCA reader duty to the TC’s security guard, stationing him at the back door of southbound express buses.

      6. They should have chosen the Link routing first. Having it go over to Aurora and then back over to I-5 would be absurd, and cause a huge loss in public confidence in ST’s ability to do planning.

        The route has been decided. Building the transit center makes it a “concrete” decision. You’re not only picking a big fight with Lynwood talking about an SR-99 alignment but there isn’t any money to build it.

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