Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey published an anti-rail piece in yesterday’s Times ($), implying that light rail is such a waste that Sound Transit spends the same amount of tax authority as Metro while serving 13 times fewer passengers:
Seattle progressives love rail. They don’t have much of it, though, because it is so expensive. Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail, which is 13 stations plus about 20 more under construction, uses up most of the agency’s 0.9 cent addition to the sales tax. Coincidentally, King County Metro, which serves thousands of bus stops all over, also costs 0.9 cents on the sales tax. The difference is that Central Link Light rail is running at about 9 million boardings a year, and Metro runs about 115 million.
Ramsey’s conflation of capital costs and operating costs is highly misleading here. According to the recently released 2014 Service Implementation Plan, Central Link accounts for only 27% of Sound Transit’s operation and maintenance costs, a share that expected to rise only to 30% by the end of the decade. Its costs per boarding ($5.83) have consistently declined ever since opening in 2009, and are now 13% lower than ST Express Buses ($6.50) and 53% lower than Sounder ($12.44). This is despite an overcapitalized fleet — its 107% spare ratio will decline to 48% after ULink and even further after North Link — and sunk costs that will diminish with economies of scale as each new extension opens.
Ramsey also omits Sound Transit’s overall ridership number of 28 million, and that ST operates far more than just Central Link, including Sounder, Tacoma Link, and 26 ST Express routes. And of course, as Ramsey mentions but seems to dismiss, much of ST’s authority is bonded to capital funds to construct 3 simultaneous extensions of Link to Des Moines, Lynnwood, and Overlake. Taking the sum of all this expenditure and comparing it only to Central Link’s 9 million annual boardings is highly misleading. Criticizing capital expenditures on the basis of existing ridership is equivalent to faulting an agency for lacking riders on services that do not yet exist.
It is of course technically true that ST’s ridership of 28m is only 24% as large as Metro’s for the same tax authority, and ST’s 2019 projections of 44m annual riders will still only be 38% as large as Metro. But that figure is with just 3 new stations at Husky Stadium, Capitol Hill, and Angle Lake. Extensions to the UDistrict and Northgate in 2021, and Des Moines, Lynnwood, and Overlake a couple years later, will bring that comparative share even higher. If after Link’s full buildout ST still doesn’t quite approach Metro’s ridership numbers, maybe Ramsey and similar commentators will have a valid quibble. But even if ST matches but never exceeds Metro’s size, overall transit ridership will have doubled in Central Puget Sound and we’ll all be better off for it.