Contributor Dan Ryan joined the blog in 2015 after several guest posts. He grew up in Ireland, and has lived on the Eastside for 15 years. Dan is a recovering economist with a day job in telecommunications. Apart from transit, Dan frequently writes about suburban land use issues.
But there’s a less celebrated narrative in more recent data. Most of the progress this decade was before 2015. Light rail ridership was lower last quarter than a year ago. Bus ridership has been moving sideways since 2016. Despite large investments in off-peak service hours, non-work trips by transit aren’t growing. Where transit ridership is growing, it’s not always keeping pace with population growth.
The decline in Link ridership last quarter wasn’t large, just -0.6% vs Q3 2018, but is still remarkable only three years after opening several new stations in a fast-growing city. Ridership for the year to date is a massive 12% below the Sound Transit budget plan, as an expected boost to rail ridership after removing buses from the tunnel failed to materialize.
Last week, we reported on the under-performing Ride2 services in West Seattle and Eastgate which have experienced low ridership and outsized costs per rider. Yesterday, Metro announced they were ending both pilots effective December 20. (The news was first reported by West Seattle Blog).
The Ride2 services were created as one year pilots, and the end comes as the West Seattle version reaches that milestone. Eastgate, which experienced a change of provider from Ford subsidiary Chariot to Hopelink in February, ran for 14 months.
There were some interesting new details on how the services performed from Metro. Over seven thousand users had downloaded the phone app, though fewer than 15% had used the service within the last month as customer interest failed to develop.
King County has piloted several on-demand services that connect people with transit hubs. The services address first/last mile access issues up to three miles around transit centers. Recent data indicates that Via continues to perform well in the Rainier Valley with growing ridership and progressively declining average costs. Meanwhile, the Ride2 services in West Seattle and Bellevue have seen stubbornly low ridership and higher per-rider costs.
“Via to Transit” launched in April as a partnership with on-demand transportation provider Via. The service mostly operates in the Rainier Valley connecting riders to light rail service at Mount Baker, Columbia City, Othello, and Rainier Beach. A more limited version is available in Tukwila. Early results were promising and have gotten appreciably better as the program reached the six-month mark. Via now serves almost four riders per hour at a cost per rider just over $10. That’s above the average of Metro services, but is declining as ridership scales. It rates well against the coverage routes that are the more immediate alternative.
Implementation of I-976 has been put on hold temporarily pending the outcome of the coalition lawsuit in King County Superior Court. In a decision delivered this morning, Judge Marshall Ferguson also indicated that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of the case.
The ruling details testimony about the damage that would ensue if a temporary injunction were not in place. Metro would need to reduce transit service by 110,000 service hours (at an annualized rate) in March and would not be able to restore that service until September. Metro would permanently lose $2 million in grants tied to the amount of service. The City of Seattle would lose $2.68 million in vehicle license fee just in December if I-976 took effect on December 5. Cuts to the multimodal account would follow shortly, likely including critical programs relied on by special needs transit-dependent taxpayers including one of the plaintiffs.
The Sound Transit Board had its first opportunity to review the results of I-976 at Thursday’s meeting. While expressing confidence they would not be forced to reduce the MVET, and also outlining the litigation strategy they intend to pursue, the Board also heard how an immediate stop to MVET revenues would result in a five year delay to future projects.
I-976 appears to have been rejected by about 53% of voters within the Sound Transit district. That’s close to the 54% yes vote on ST3, although it conceals a widening gap in voter preferences within the district. That gap was on display yesterday too, with Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier arguing Sound Transit should accept the will of statewide voters including two-thirds of those in Pierce County. Nevertheless, it’s enough for most Board members who are ready to recognize a mandate of voters in the Sound Transit area to push ahead with projects and continue collecting the MVET if possible.
In October, WSDOT awarded the contract for the widening of I-405 between Bellevue and Renton. With significant construction beginning in the Spring, that kicks off construction on the first capital elements of I-405 BRT South. Meanwhile, WSDOT and Sound Transit have been making complementary investments along the corridor that continue to raise expectations for the success of the BRT. Recent briefings in Renton and Bellevue bring us up to speed on how the project is developing.
In 2019, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 5825, making permanent the toll authorization for I-405 and SR 167 (and authorizing tolling for the Gateway facility in Pierce and South King County). The legislation also redefined I-405 and SR 167 as a single corridor with one account for toll revenue. Bonding was authorized for ETL toll revenues. The effect is to accelerate projects along the corridor. Most consequential for transit users is the second express lane north of Bothell which will enable dramatically faster bus operations in that area once combined with a Sound Transit project to add direct access lanes to Brickyard.
Several improvements to Link station signage are in development. Numbered exit signs will be piloted at downtown Seattle stations next week, and other enhancements will be rolled out with system expansions in future years. The changes were introduced at a meeting of the System Expansion Committee on Thursday as the Committee approved a contract for sign services. At the same meeting, CEO Peter Rogoff indicated Sound Transit would drop the term “Red Line” and perhaps color-coded lines generally.
Last week’s apparent passage of I-976 has given rise to a fair amount of commentary affirming that voters were sending a message, and disagreeing about what they are saying. One could focus on the statewide rejection of taxes on cars, narrow support for car tabs in the three counties served by Sound Transit, a probable positive vote within the Sound Transit RTA, the clearly positive vote in King County, or the massive rejection of Sound Transit taxes in Pierce County.
Precinct data is clarifying. It’s unfortunately not yet available in Pierce County. However, current precinct data is available for Snohomish County and first night detail is available for King County. Clear patterns are evident among the cities where I-976 over- and under-performed relative to the 2016 ST3 vote.
The I-976 vote polarized voters within the RTA along geographic lines more than ST3. Seattle voters, already most likely to favor taxes for transit, opposed I-976 by yet larger margins than in 2016. The suburbs to the north and south with the lowest pro-ST3 votes became more adamantly opposed with huge majorities against the MVET. The divided response from voters calls into question the marquee Sound Transit projects extending rail far to the north and south.
Last night’s returns indicate I-976 is likely to pass. The next step is likely a court challenge, or several. What if the initiative is sustained? Let’s look ahead at the implications for Sound Transit.
If Sound Transit is forced to stop collecting the MVET, that reduces 2021-2041 revenues by $6.9 billion, or 12.3% of what was previously estimated. (Sound Transit mostly relies on sales taxes with a smaller contribution from property tax).
The impact of losing the MVET revenues is multiplied because it is front-loaded. The MVET is 18% of tax revenues through 2028, and just under 10% thereafter. That’s because the 0.3% Sound Move MVET must end in 2028 as a result of a previous Eyman initiative. When that happens, the 0.8% ST3 MVET would have moved to the lower 2005 car valuation schedule reducing those revenues about 30%.
Last we heard, just a few weeks ago, Sound Transit’s draft service plan was to discontinue ST 541 (Overlake – University District), along with ST 540 (Kirkland – University District). This week, the Rider Experience Committee is set to reconsider that plan. Up to ten one-way trips will remain on ST 541. That’s significantly less than the 20 round trips currently provided, but it indicates some rethinking of service changes on SR 520 in response to rider feedback.
The staff memo points to recent growth in ridership on ST routes over SR 520, including 541 and 542. There’s also a nod to rider input during public involvement about capacity concerns on the remaining 542 trips. Average weekday ridership on ST 541 this Spring was 873.
There now commences a period of monitoring ridership shifts on all of these services. The ten remaining trips on ST 541 will be evaluated prior to each service change. Route 544 operate for at least 24 months so that the market can develop and the full ridership potential can be evaluated. After two years, it too may be adjusted based on performance.
King County Metro has begun preliminary design for RapidRide K connecting Totem Lake, Kirkland, Bellevue and Eastgate. Some details emerged in a pair of recent briefings in Kirkland and Bellevue.
The line is anticipated to open in 2025. As mapped in Metro Connects, the long range plan for expanding Metro service, the K Line would replace portions of route 255 from Totem Lake to the South Kirkland Park & Ride, current routes 234 and 235 between South Kirkland and the Bellevue Transit Center, and Route 271 between Bellevue Transit Center and Eastgate.
Yesterday, the Sound Transit Board adopted a final set of options for the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for Link extensions to Ballard and West Seattle. After a contentious discussion that frequently focused on cost challenges, the Board voted down a Pigeon Point tunnel in West Seattle. Options for a central Ballard station at 20th Ave NW were not included in the DEIS either. Lacking support among board members, the central Ballard station was hardly discussed and it was not voted on.
Two options were added to the DEIS. As expected, the Board approved adding an alternative elevated alignment in the Yancy/Andover corridor area of West Seattle. That would reduce the number of homes to be taken for construction, but also shifts the Delridge station north with inferior station access.
This afternoon, the Sound Transit Board will finalize the list of options to be examined in the Link Extensions Draft EIS for West Seattle and Ballard. A motion on the agenda adds just one more option in West Seattle to a initial list of alternatives adopted in May. Several other alternatives that were recently studied would not proceed any further. These include the Pigeon Point Tunnel in West Seattle and all of the options to locate a Ballard station near 20th Ave NW.
Let’s recap how we reached this point. Sound Transit has been analyzing options for the Seattle ST3 lines since 2017. In May, the Board made a selection from those alternatives to be considered in the draft Environmental Impact Statement. In response to input received during the scoping period, the Board also directed staff to examine a half dozen other options that might also be added to the EIS. An initial analysis on those options was completed last month. With that information in hand, the Board now has to lock down the final list of options to go through the EIS process.
ST Express 550, connecting Bellevue to Seattle, is the highest ridership bus in the Sound Transit Express system. In the last two years, it has shed more than one third of its ridership. Issaquah-Seattle route ST 554, also operating on I-90, has seen ridership decline 14% over the same period.
Recently, a Sound Transit Committee received an analysis that explores the reasons why. It’s unlikely very much of the lost ridership could have been avoided. It’s nevertheless concerning because the I-90 express routes ought to be building a market for transit ahead of Blue Line trains running to Bellevue in 2023 and Redmond in 2024.
ST 550 has become progressively more difficult for riders to access as several major stops have closed. The South Bellevue P&R closed in June 2017 for East Link construction with a loss of 519 parking stalls. That was followed by the closure of Convention Place Station in July 2018 and Rainier Freeway Station in September 2018. However, the greatest loss of ridership came with the closing of the downtown transit tunnel to buses in March 2019. On average, Metro and Sound Transit routes formerly in the tunnel have seen 20% ridership losses since March.
The Seattle City Council’s Planning Committee recently considered whether to endorse a second bascule bridge serving transit across the Montlake Cut. Current city policy does not favor a bridge for transit unless specific triggers are met. However, changing circumstances in Montlake may warrant a revisit. Although last week’s discussion was inconclusive, the question is likely to recur as construction proceeds on SR 520 and WSDOT begins a consultative process with stakeholders in the project later this year or early 2020.
The Legislature funded a second parallel bridge across the Cut in the Connecting Washington package in 2015. WSDOT envisions the bridge being constructed in a third phase of the SR 520 ‘Rest of the West’, but has not released a timetable.
By the time most ST3 projects are delivered in the mid-2030s, Sound Transit is projected to accumulate over $17 billion in debt. Managing that debt load is critical to delivering the program on time.
Sound Transit’s debt capacity is limited in several ways. There is a statutory limit that total debt cannot exceed 1.5% of the property tax base within the RTA district. There are other constraints, contained within financial policies and bond covenants, that limit bond servicing costs relative to available cash flow. Sound Transit monitors all of these so the future debt load remains financially sustainable and within legal limits. If future projections indicated any of these limits would be exceeded, it would become necessary to delay projects or reduce operations.
US Census data released on Thursday confirmed more Seattle residents are taking transit to work. More are walking too. Bike commute rates remain low, however.
Even though the Census’ American Community Survey sample is a large and sophisticated process, sample variation is inevitable and there are occasional anomalies at local geographies. So it’s more productive to step back and look at trends than focus on shifts in one mode in one year. (I’ve assembled some tables with local statistics here).
In 2010, 18% of workers living in Seattle took transit to work. Last year, this had grown to 23%. It’s a sharp contrast to other major cities where ridership is trending down.
On Thursday morning, the Mayor will propose increasing taxes on rideshare trips that begin or end in the city of Seattle by 51 cents beginning in 2021. (see coverage from Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal). Among the beneficiaries of the tax is the Center City Connector which would see $56 million over five years, closing the deficit in funding that project after the City Council recently approved another $9 million for a reworked project design.
If the tax increase and spending plan are approved, and the project otherwise stays on track, it would resolve the streetcar’s funding gap without a messy budget cycle duel over other priorities for general fund spending. The 51 cent levy adds to an existing 24 cent levy on rideshare trips that supports licencing and wheelchair access. That levy might be reduced, but the total levy proposed by the Mayor’s office would be 75 cents in any case to meet the spending goals.
Sound Transit is seeking public comment on a program of possible expansions to Sounder South. These are likely to include additional daily runs on Sounder and station platform improvements to allow 10-car trains to operate (up from 7 cars today). Sound Transit envisions a series of improvements rolling out through 2036, with planning on the first projects beginning in 2020.
The ST3 program included $934 million (2014 $) in Sounder South capital improvements to improve access and capacity. There is an additional $325 million to fund an extension from the current terminus at Lakewood to serve two new stations at Tillikum and Dupont in 2036.