Along with local revenue, Central Link was built using money from the Federal Government. As part of the $500 million Full Funding Agreement with Sound Transit the Federal Transit Administration required a Before & After Study. The study compared transit ridership in the the corridor from the fall of 2011 (two years after the opening of the line) to the fall of 2008 (one year before the opening of the line) and to agency projections. The initial report was submitted to the Federal Transit Administration in July of 2012. The Federal Transit Administration responded with some desired changes. A Before & After study was a recent addition to Federal Transit Administration grant requirements, so this was uncharted territory for Sound Transit. According to Sound Transit Spokesperson Bruce Gray:
The changes came from FTA feedback asking for a more “apples to apples” comparison of predicted ridership vs. actual. The earlier draft used ridership estimates for the project as planned from NE 45th Street to S. 200th for the earliest project planning milestones, and from Westlake to Tukwila International Blvd. for the FFGA [Full Funding Grant Agreement] milestone. The latest draft reflects the ridership ST would have predicted using the same information that was available at the time of those milestones for the project from downtown to SeaTac/Airport.
Last spring Sound Transit sent the final report to the Federal Transit Administration. The earlier draft of the Before & After Study is here, the final draft here. The latest report is well worth a read. More below the fold.
The meat of the report changed little between versions. In the fall of 2011 Central Link was not meeting its projections. There were multiple reasons but the largest was without a doubt the Great Recession. There were 80,000 less jobs downtown in 2011 than originally forecast by PSRC, the basis of Sound Transit’s ridership projections. Other factors mentioned: the slow adoption of new transit service in Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley Corridor, slow ORCA Card adoption, poor integration with existing transit service, travel time reliability issues in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, larger headways, and fare differences, especially the Ride Free Zone.
Some of those have been resolved but others are an ongoing process. As the most recent update notes, Link’s ridership is now growing faster than projected. Instead of the 2-3% ‘mature’ rate expected in 2011, Link was and is still growing by double digits. In fact ridership is growing faster now than it was a year ago!
Which brings me to my conclusion. With all the great data collected and interesting analysis performed*, I was left disappointed at the lost potential. For the time and hard work that was put into this report it’s just a shame that it had to be produced so quickly after the opening of the line. Most of the report is near useless for drawing any meaningful conclusions, it was just written too soon. I’d love to see all this analysis done on data taken from fall of 2015 instead of 2011.
*Check out the ‘linked transit trips’ work done on the corridor (pg 14 of the document, 18 of the pdf). That’s a cool little metric!