North by Northwest View 007 – License to Kill Sounder North?

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Sounder at Everett Station

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My photo of Sounder North at Everett Station

These are not the views of Seattle Transit Blog, rather the Page Two Writer.

I used to ride Sounder North until very recently, when I just decided free WiFi, the thrill of riding the rails and the gratification of riding grade-separated mass transit of Sounder North was not worth my life after reading of a slide one week ago that, “came down in front of a Sounder train heading into Everett. Mud slid onto the tracks immediately in front of the train, which came to an emergency stop in the shallow mud and vegetation.” I also think Sounder North is not just unsafe but also illegal.

Sounder North illegal? Yes, as RCW 81.104.120 allows Sound Transit to provide commuter rail service only when “costs per mile, including costs of trackage, equipment, maintenance, operations, and administration are equal to or less than comparable bus…”

Rail is wonderful – it’s grade-separated, which means that there’s little to no congestion. But rail also costs more than a bus. In fact, the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel found the cost of Sounder North six times more expensive than moving by bus in a 2012 report. However, the Third Quarter 2014 Sound Transit ridership report says ST Express Bus for that quarter is $6.22, versus $11.32 per Sounder North & Sounder South rider – perhaps because the easements bought from BNSF are not calculated. Still.

Furthermore, according to that same report, Sounder North was getting only 245,025 riders from three quarters of 2014 service. The original 1994 Commuter Rail Status report (page 13 of the PDF) projected 1,168,000 annual passengers in 2010 to make Sounder North pencil out and legal. Sound Transit is nowhere near that 2010 goal in late 2014.

Two years ago, the lovely Meg Coyle of KING 5 anchored a stern news report that the Citizens’ Oversight Panel recommended Sounder North be more cost-effective or stood down:

One would also add the sensitive matter of Sounder North’s proclivity to slide disruptions. Perhaps this explains why ridership is low. But also the slide disruptions race genuine moral questions. When seconds count, first responders are minutes away. Each Sounder North car can take over 130 passengers – so even at 33% use, that’s more lives at risk than lost from the 2014 Oso mudslide. Per car. In places along the tracks from Everett to Seattle, there are no roads for ambulances and the like to race to – which means that rescue swimmers by helicopter and boat would be necessary to help good Samaritans pulling Sounder North users out of Puget Sound. Granted, NAS Whidbey Island only has one SAR helicopter on strip alert (with another two for backup) that requires base commander permission to launch– and the Snohomish County Sheriff has a donation-supported Helicopter Rescue Team using an upgraded Huey. Both units performed beautifully during the Skagit River bridge collapse and the Oso landslide – but did not have to deal with hundreds in a life-threatening situation.

Vital minutes would pass for those heroes to get on scene while folks in business attire would be drowning and/or have the onset of hypothermia. As somebody who’s been in the backcountry and worked on a farm in the elements who has experienced the cold, hypothermia is a serious matter. Just reading the Wikipedia entry on hypothermia from water immersion should get your attention. The first two minutes truly matter and the first 15-30 minutes are when folks live or die after getting plunged into Puget Sound – so if lots of people can’t swim in business attire to shore and try to dry off until ample First Responders arrive… they could very likely die.

However, as you may have noticed from the agenda, Sound Transit’s monthly Board meeting will not address this issue. So I called King County Executive Dow Constantine’s Communications Office today and was politely told negotiations are underway to schedule a Sound Transit Board discussion about Sounder North as Executive Constantine’s been clear: “The board’s first concern is safety. In light of this incident, and service interruptions during past winters, I plan to ask the board to discuss rainy-season operational challenges.”

One would hope soon as every time a Sounder North races around slopes still waiting for stabilization efforts to complete… a dangerous roulette is underway. Not to mention the expensive matter of noncompliance with RCW 81.104.120 intended to protect scarce transit dollars.  For those reasons of safety and illegality, it’s time the Sound Transit Board seriously recalculated whether to proceed with Sounder North operations.

Ultimately, in the final analysis: How long does the Sound Transit Board want to wait until several hundred Sounder North passengers end up in Puget Sound from a mudslide and we have a mass casualty incident for no good reason with RCW 81.104.120 to cite to eliminate the risk? Who wants to be the transit advocate or likable politician to explain that to the next of kin and a class action litigator?  Especially when bus rapid transit/BRT would resolve the transit needs Sounder North has meagerly addressed with minimal risk to human life and be in compliance with state law.

If you want to make your views known to the Sound Transit B0ard – EmailTheBoard-AT-soundtransit-DOT-orgNow is the time…


Special thanks to John Niles of Public Interest Transportation Forum, Bob Pishue of the Washington Policy Center and Frank Abe of King County Executive Dow Constantine for your invaluable help in stitching this together.