There is no transit performance metric quite like ridership. However, when any metric becomes the single point of evaluation, it can lead to bizarre conclusions.
Last month’s High Speed Rail study counted riders, and some readers couldn’t resist comparing the numbers to middling local transit routes. But it’s one thing to take riders between adjacent neighborhoods and another to deliver them 180 miles away.
A project’s cost, at a first approximation, is proportional to its length. Single-minded attention to cost per rider means never building a long-distance project at all, which is nonsensical. That’s not to say that passenger-miles is a perfect metric, either. It favors long-haul routes that are irrelevant to the spontaneous trips that enable urban living. But a comprehensive evaluation must consider both when the difference in spatial scales is this large.
Moreover, Seattle-area transit and HSR aren’t fiscally in tension with each other. A state subsidy to Puget Sound transit that actually moves the needle is inconceivable. Meanwhile, HSR could connect cities all around the state with the wealth centered in Seattle, at a time when it is increasingly hard to drive there. This aligns with Olympia’s traditional responsibility for intercity rail and bus, and offers a good value proposition to voters across the state.