Occasionally, a report drops into my lap which is so informative and well-written that I really have little to say about it, except that everyone should go and read it in its entirety. The Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel’s report on Sounder North is one of them, and it’s a pretty devastating evaluation of the north line as a regional mobility project:
COP members are very sympathetic to the sense of ownership, pride, and equity that Sounder North represents in Snohomish County. In a decade of development and operation, riders have grown to appreciate having the service and citizens have stated clearly that they value having both train and bus service as alternatives. These are real and meaningful values and COP shares them.
However, we believe that, in the long-term, the tax-payers and transit users of Snohomish County will not be well served if the high-cost Sounder North line continues to run well below capacity while the much lower-cost ST Express bus routes run overloaded with passengers standing in the aisles. At a certain point in the future, Sound Transit may have to come to terms with a reality that one of its services is not living up to a reasonable definition of viability.
The COP report subsequently flinches from discussing hard criteria for viability, presumably in deference to the vocal support of local politicians whose cities are served by Sounder. Instead, it makes a number of suggestions towards cutting operating costs and improving ridership which strike me as reasonable, but unlikely to close the yawning gulf between the status quo and a defensible level of ridership and public subsidy, given the alternatives of improving today’s overcrowded bus service, or saving for a planned Link extension. To quantify that gap, ST’s Seattle-Everett express buses cost just over $5 per boarding, versus $32 for Sounder North.
More after the jump.
My only criticism of the report would be that is does not consider the effect Lynnwood Link will have when it opens, tentatively expected in 2023. Community Transit currently operates a vast network of long-haul commuter service into Downtown Seattle and the U-District via I-5; services which, along with Sound Transit’s freeway-running services and CT local feeder routes, are already eating Sounder’s lunch. Assuming a good bus-rail interchange at Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace, those trips could be truncated, and the (considerable) savings reinvested in an improved feeder network of local and commuter services.
Link will provide a fast connection into the hearts of the region’s biggest job centers that will be totally immune to traffic and mudslides, and run every 10 minutes or better, all day and into the evening, every day. Combined with a high-quality CT feeder system, Link could offer a level of speed, access and convenience that reduces Sounder North to a (very expensive) irrelevance, serving only a niche market of ferry commuters and nearby residents — nothing remotely like the kind of concentrated ridership needed to justify commuter rail, which is a very labor- and energy-intensive service to provide. 2023 is a long way off, and that date could slip, but any potential major capital expenditures on Sounder North are 50 year (or more) investments, and should be evaluated as such.
This report also confirms a rumor I had heard several times, but had never got on the record, namely that BNSF took ST to the cleaners on the Sounder North easements:
The agreement eventually reached between ST and BNSF limited Sound Transit commuter rail to four daily round trips, where six had been planned. The cost of the four easements was $258 million, compared to about $65 M previously assumed. The trips were to operate in the peak direction only, although both directions had been assumed. […]
One important lesson learned from the Sounder North experience was that term sheet agreements with BNSF and Amtrak should have been negotiated before going to the ballot [for the money to pay for the service].
Again, the report is ten pages of great information, and you should read all of it. My hat is off to the COP: this is exactly the kind difficult truth that agency leadership should be forced to publicly address.