Martin and Frank discuss competing criteria for evaluating transit projects, the viability of Paine Field, ReachNow’s launch, and the case for 130th Street station.

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30 Replies to “Podcast #15: Costs Per Rider”

  1. I think the alternative title is “Martin, the apologist.”

    Good to have you back, Martin (though I’d love to have Zach participate more – he did a great job). Your compromise embracing perspective is a nice counter to the echo chamber that STB can become.

    I’m going to repeat what I said in earlier threads, though – I’m really surprised on how down you guys are on ReachNow. As a service that makes “car lite” living more comfortable, I’m really excited about it (of course, I live in the North End and am dating someone in the CD, so of course it bothers me less that it doesn’t go to the RV). I feel like, because it is privately run, we don’t get this nice service if the business doesn’t succeed (and if it does succeed, it will expand to cover more diverse neighborhoods). So I’m an apologist for their business decisions in the short term.

    Two particular bones I’d pick from the podcast:

    1) Magnolia isn’t actually in the ReachNow service area.
    2) You seem to miss one essential detail of the car sharing business – the importance of reaching a threshold of car density. The number of cars per square mile is pretty analogous to frequency for transit service: above the threshold density of cars, you can be pretty sure that there’s a car nearby, and so you can start your journey soon, which gives the service broad appeal, just like how frequent transit means you can start your journey soon, and the service has broad appeal. Without density/frequency, either service quickly becomes much less useful, and is typically only used by those who have no other choice, which in turn increases the costs per rider, leading to lower service levels. Except that reach now is a private enterprise, so they’ll just back out if the service isn’t profitable, rather than turning to public subsidy.

    What makes me think you guys aren’t thinking about this geographic reality is your claim that it doesn’t cost anything to expand territory, because they don’t have to build stations like Pronto does. No, they aren’t building bike racks – they’re building $40,000 BMWs. To build enough of those that you can expect to be a 5 minute walk from one in all of the Rainier Valley and West Seattle – that’s expensive.

    It’s ironic, given Martin’s comment that about there not being a car2go near him when he needs one. That’s exactly the problem that BMW is trying to avoid by corralling their vehicles into a limited part of town.

  2. Liked the show.

    Wanted to comment on the first bit about cost per rider metrics.
    The metric itself seems good. The issue is that there is lots of – reasonable doubt – about the PSRC projections that are used for ST modeling.

    Wondering why there hasn’t been more focus on why the PSRC projections are terrible, and easy ways to improve them.

  3. Now I want to buy a day pass for the Houston transit system and send them to Seattle just to mess with them, haha.

  4. It’s always interesting to hear a more dynamic discussion, and I do certainly like the programs. It would be complicated, but it might be interesting to try a podcast of the editorial board meeting (if you have those?) to get a broader discussion.

    @ 7:43: “that short stop spacing will produce high levels of ridership”….this all depends on what the goal of the line is.

    In the 1890s and 1910s, Portland’s streetcars stopped every block. Eventually, the longer distance routes had to have broader stop spacing.

    Today, people complain about the sections of MAX where stations are every 200 feet. Yet, when they built that line in the 1980s, that’s what TriMet’s buses were doing downtown, was twice what the stop spacing was on the 1950 streetcar lines, and what surface rail lines were doing in a number of cities.

    There has to be a balance between easy access and actually moving.

    @ 8:20: Does the Everett plan really have a low cost per rider? Compared to the 130th Street Station? I know the Ballard extension post here talks of ridership, but the most recent Everett post doesn’t bring up the actual numbers of riders in the discussion.

    @ 13:10: The reason I like cost per passenger mile is that there really aren’t very many metrics that tell us if a particular service is cheaper to operate with a bus or with a light rail train. Certainly, that particular metric collapses as a good metric too in cases: SoundTransit express buses are $0.47 per passenger mile to operate, so they are almost as cheap as the MAX figure of $0.44 per passenger mile. However, MAX lines are actual lines that serve an entire corridor while the ST express buses are point to point creatures. Link is in the $1.38 per passenger mile range, so cheaper than local buses but more expensive than the express buses. If you were to try to do what Link or MAX currently does with buses in most cases they would make the overall operating cost go up.

    In the case of Link to Everett or West Seattle or what have you, we really need to know what the cost per rider is of the Link line and the cost for an alternative investment such as BRT or what have you.

    @ 30:30: Things that might develop in the Paine Field area: Stadler has described its new plant in Utah as a temporary railroad passenger car assembly plant, and might consider other places for their permanent plant. The bad news is the company is Swiss, and when asked about their reasons for locating to Utah the first thing the executive team mentioned was that Utah has wonderful powder for skiing. No Boeing-like tax break is going to overcome that type of criteria for locating an industrial facility.

    @ 34:30: Making Sounder better in general. When it comes to trips such as the aforementioned Everett or Paine Field to SeaTac trips, there have been times that the trip planners (both the local one and Google maps) have told me it would take an hour to get from SeaTac to the Sounder station in Tukwila due to the transfer time penalty. In short, Sounder needs a better feeder network, but that better feeder network can’t be justified since it only runs peak periods.

    @ 39:00 and nearby: There is a certain group of transportation planners, most of whom I think reside in Europe, who feel that intercity rail should go through urban areas to expand the reach. For example, Amtrak Cascades between Portland and Seattle would actually run Everett to Salem for the same reason the train stops in Tacoma and Vancouver, Washington: it picks up passengers for whom the trek into the central train station would otherwise make the trip unworkable. I don’t know of any routes that actually do it this way other than perhaps some of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor trains that continue into northern Virginia. It is conceivable that you could do it this way (at least on the Seattle end) and have Cascades serve as a regional connector north of Seattle.

    @ 30:00 through 47 or thereabouts: Wow, that’s some obnoxious truck backing up alarm you’ve got going on outside your house.

    1. In it taking an hour to get from SeaTac to Tukwila Sounder station, I think the best advice (as slows as it is) is to just take Link. Even Link doesn’t take an hour from the airport to downtown.

      1. Nobody lives at Tukwila Sounder Station. Who are we actually trying to serve? People who live in Puyallup and transfer from Sounder? People who live in Renton and park at the station? People who live in Seattle and think a 15-minute Sounder train has got to be faster than a 40-minute Link ride directly to the airport?

        Taking Sounder to Sea-Tac is ridiculous when it’s peak-only and half-hourly then: if you miss the train you miss your flight. But there is a solution for those who want to do it anyway. Kent Station! The 180 is a 20-minute one-seat ride from Kent Station to the airport, and it runs every half hour. (I thought it was 15 minutes weekdays but it’s not in the current schedule. Did it go down?)

      2. The point mentioned in the Podcast was about those from out of the country who are used to good transit arriving at SeaTac and wanting to get to get up to the Boeing offices.

        In many places on earth, there is an actual regional passenger railroad service that would be serving the need of the spine. Other services would feed into that. You could go bus + Sounder + bus and get up there ok.

        It’s a two and a half hour undertaking today.

        Taking Link works for some destinations. For others is your best bet is Sounder or Amtrak. As noted in the podcast, certain services are used for different purposes.

        Sounder already stops at the Tukwila station, and so does Amtrak.

        There must be something like 20 buses that run between the car rental building and SeaTac. Would it be such a big deal to run one of those down the hill once in a while to meet the infrequent trains?

      3. In many places on earth, offices are located along straight transit corridors rather than willy-nilly anywhere, and without huge parking lots between stations and building entrances, or a sea of superblocks.

    2. @13:10
      Having worked in business most of my career, the question of whether or not an idea was a good one, most always looked at the bottom line profits to be made first. Only then was the cost to build and implement the improvement considered, and the payback period better not be more than 5-7 years, or forget it.
      Public investment is different. We start with a need or improvement, figure out a way to do it, cost it out over 30 – 100 years, figure out how to raise the dough and who pays how much, double check the political process, and then look at how much that costs per unit of measure to sustain (cost per passenger mile).
      That’s why business turns a profit or goes bust, and why public spending just goes up and up.
      A fortune 500 would have cut its losses years ago on Sounder North and would laugh you out of the Board Room for proposing Link to Everett via Paine Field, while junking your express bus fleets.

      1. A business would also not bother to serve poor people, and certainly wouldn’t submit its business plan to a public vote.

        If you want it to run for a profit, let’s run it for a profit and not as something where the people have input. Otherwise, stop with the irrelevant analogies.

      2. A fortune 500 would have cut its losses years ago on Sounder North

        This depends entirely on your fortune 500 company.

        The railroad industry understands that things take a very long time to pay back. Don’t know how many of them are on the Fortune 500 list these days, but some of them have been stalwarts of the stock market for decades upon decades.

        Why did the BN retain ownership of the Stampede Pass line even though it was disused for many, many years before being rebuilt? Sometimes, it is necessary to retain ownership of irreplaceable infrastructure.

        Some years back they did a study of one of their branch lines in the Willamette Valley. The basic financials of the branch were not good, as they were spending $100,000 more than they were taking in on the branch. However, after a more detailed analysis, they found that the traffic on the branch actually resulted in a net gain of $3 million to the main line traffic. Therefore, while the people doing the first analysis only looked at the local traffic as local traffic and expenses for that line, an actual look at where the traffic was moving over its entire distance produced a much different picture of the financial necessity of keeping the line.

        Sounder North looks bad because express bus service could provide much better connections at a lower price. However, having been stuck on Interstate 5 a few times in that horrific mess north of Northgate, I can also see how there isn’t much support for trying to do what Sounder North does with buses. You have to look at the entire picture of what replacement service would look like and its operating conditions.

      3. In 2023, the “replacement” service becomes very simple – run express buses nonstop from each of the northend Sounder Stations to Lynnwood, then use Link. Traffic isn’t that bad this far north.

      4. Did the railroads in the 1960s know that multimodal shipping containers were just around the corner and would be a huge business? Did they know that the freeways of American freedom and progress would become so congested that companies would look to rail to get their goods reliably? Did they predict that companies like Wal-Mart would make a rail-based international supply pipeline a centerpoint of their just-in-time inventory? Did they predict that shale oil and coal would be big business for their trains, and require expanding track capacity to move both it and their other clients? Those are all reasons you might want to hold onto rights of way in case future conditions require them.

      5. Re Sounder North: I’m thinking of a substitute plan that would work…

        If ST3 passes and buses can drive on the shoulders of I-5, then why not have some ST3 early wins and give Mukilteo & Edmonds direct routing to those routes?

        Also make sure Mukilteo gets an Amtrak Cascades automated station. Only Sounder North station without Amtrak.

        Sounder North going away would take some of the heartburn out of those whom want to conserve transit dollars (me) and those who have trouble realizing Sound Transit MUST serve Snohomish County with high capacity rail.

      6. Oh, give me a break Martin. How many people riding Sounder North are at the poverty line? So stop with the bleeding heart. And I didn’t propose transit turn a profit, although some actually do, just that the upfront capital costs need to be moderated against the ‘forever’ operating costs using metrics where different modes can be fairly evaluated against one another. There’s a Least Cost Planning law on the state books, but it is rarely even followed.

      7. In 2023, the “replacement” service becomes very simple – run express buses nonstop from each of the northend Sounder Stations to Lynnwood, then use Link. Traffic isn’t that bad this far north.

        I’m not too optimistic about that. One of the traffic jams I slogged through was on a Belaire bus from Burlington, and it was already 45 minutes late there because the traffic jam started in Bellingham.

  5. Another hour+ podcast I don’t have time to listen to — and I’m retired! Do you guys really get enough plays on these to make them worthwhile? I just don’t get it.

    1. RDPence,

      We get you don’t want to spend an hour hearing discussion about transit issues. Good for you! Our listener numbers are very strong.

    2. OK, let me get this straight:

      You use transit on the west coast of the USA?
      and you don’t have an hour spread through two weeks time of accumulated waiting for buses, riding buses or trains, and waiting for transfers at some awful location in the middle of nowhere?

      I don’t think there’s a better place to listen to Martin apologize for being a Sounder North apologist than while slogging through slow motion traffic on Interstate 5 that could have been avoided if Sounder North operated in both directions or if there were Amtrak service operating in both directions at that time of day.

      Also, if you want to, you can hit the 1.5x button on the Podcast and understand both Martin and Frank at a faster pace and get through the podcast in 45 minutes.

    3. I see, it’s a generational thing. I grew up before even the Walkman. Going about my urban travels with earbuds is just not part of who I am. I like to be aurally in touch with my environment. But for you youngsters, just go for it. Now that I grasp your target audience, you won’t get any more criticism from me.

      1. Sitting 3 feet from the diesel engine on one of TriMet’s buses is about as close as I want to be to being in touch with that particular environment.

      2. Part of personal security is situational awareness, especially in an urban environment. Works best with ears alert and not plugged with buds. Oh, and better to not sit on that rear bench!

  6. 2 comments:

    1. The thought that we need Paine Field transit station because of visiting consultants, engineers and other mucky mucks is a non-starter. Those visiting consultants, engineers and other mucky mucks are put up in a little something called a hotel. 99% of the time said hotel is in downtown Seattle, the rest in an Everett hotel. I can guess that there are 0% hotels in Paine Field. 99% of the time the final trip is going to be from the hotel to Link, not directly from Paine Field to Link.

    2. Keep fighting the good fight over the Seattle 130th, Debora Juarez. Her next move should be to get on the ST Board.

    1. Thank you for the date stamp on the podcast. If ST3 is going to take 25 yrs, you’ll want to add the year – there will be a lot of April 24’s, unfortunately.

      In addition, when you introduce the topics in your post, if you could do it in order – Reach Now was after the 130th station discussion, and Houston transit was MIA in your intro. Even better, if you could give the listener how many minutes in each of these topics are. Doesn’t have to be precise, but it can give the listener (ok, me and RDPence) an idea when to jump into the stream for the couple of topics I want to listen to.

    2. It’s not for those consultants: they’ll take a shuttle or taxi, and their consulting fee will include typical American ground transportation. It’s for the out-of-town workers who will be hired over the lifetime of the factory, who will make at least two trips from the airport and probably more to visit their families, and business contacts coming for a day or a week, etc. It’s not just about workers’ actual trips to the airport: it’s a very visible first impression of the region’s general transit infrastructure: if it doesn’t have good transit to the airport it probably doesn’t have good transit anywhere else. When you see several companies and cities all saying rail to the airport is important for business and to make the city competitive, there’s probably something real behind it. What other issues are companies and cities so united on?

      1. Depends on where those consultants and other visitors are coming from.

        If Europe or Japan, they sort of expect decent transit service to any place worth putting a major corporate office.

    3. I can say from personal experience many times as a photographing helper to several small to medium-size Paine Field tenants that the Hilton Garden Inn Seattle North will with a hotel stay run out to a Swift bus stop on Evergreen Way and pick you up upon request…

      That doesn’t mitigate completely the need for more bus service to Paine Field – especially for the locals that deserve transit access to Paine Field’s many tourist attractions, but…

  7. Martin, I hope you’ll write a bit about your visit to Houston. I moved to Seattle from Houston less than a year ago, so it’s great to hear something other than “Houston? … gross!” from a Seattleite. It’s really not as bad as people seem to think – actually it’s a really interesting place if you can get past the humidity and the stark views from the giant freeways. I even managed to live “car-light” in the Montrose area – though not nearly to the extent I do in Seattle.

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