When we wrote recently about Sound Transit’s post-COVID funding shortfalls, the comments conversation turned quickly to Sounder North. The lightly used commuter rail line is everybody’s favorite local example of a transit service serving too few riders at extreme costs per rider. As the only Sound Transit rail serving Snohomish County to date, it has survived persistent concerns about costs in the past. Lynnwood Link is now nearing completion and is anticipated to open in 2024. Is it finally time to cut Sounder North?
Snohomish County, like other subareas, will shortly have to delay or suspend some future projects as the COVID-induced recession reduces tax and fare revenue. Some back-of-the-envelope math suggests cutting Sounder would avoid roughly one and one-half years of delays to Everett Link.
Eight years ago, the Citizen Oversight Panel took a hard look at Sounder North’s performance. In 2012, Sound Transit had already expended $258 million buying the easement from BNSF and more than $300 million on various stationary assets. Ridership was far below initial expectations, and reflected in a high $32 operational cost per boarding. The report concluded “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“.
Since 2012, Sound Transit has expended another $26 million in capital and has a further $105 million scheduled by 2028, much of that for parking expansions at Edmonds and Mukilteo. Operations run about $11 million per year. Those outlays have increased ridership a little by improving reliability in winter, but Sounder North still serves fewer than 800 round-trip commuters each weekday. Four trains in each direction carry morning riders from Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds to King Street station in Seattle, and back in the afternoon. At about $27 per boarding, the operating costs don’t look much better than in 2012. These costs will soar over $50 per boarding after Lynnwood Link pulls away nearly 40% of riders.
By the metrics of the Oversight Panel in 2012, there seems no path to “a reasonable definition of viability“.
Set against a tens of billions of dollars capital program, it has historically appeared small enough to ignore. Riders are enthusiastic and politically potent even if not so numerous. But trade-offs are real, as continued investment in Sounder North diverts resources from better used services in the Snohomish subarea. Here’s the math.
Sounder North is projected to consume $485 million in capital, operations and state of good repair expenses between 2020 and 2041. Light rail, BRT, and Regional Express buses were projected to run a shade under $10 billion over the same time, before the imminent recession derailed the forecast. Of that, $5.9 billion is in light rail capital outlays post-Lynnwood Link, including the Everett extension and a ridership-based share of the second downtown tunnel.
An immediate stop to Sounder service on the north line is about one-twelfth the Link capital program cost over two decades. Very roughly, there’s enough money currently committed to Sounder North to cover the Snohomish Link capital program for about one and one-half years. In a severe recession, some delays in Link reaching Everett are inevitable, but shaving one and one-half years off those delays seems worthwhile when the alternative is a train serving fewer than a thousand daily commuters in 2041.