Collaboration in Civic Spheres

North Sounder low ridership, high costs “not acceptable,” says oversight body

by Matt Rosenberg September 27th, 2012

In a report aired publicly today at the board meeting of the Seattle region’s three-county regional transit agency Sound Transit, its Citizen Oversight Panel said at half of original projected passenger levels, North Sounder commuter rail service running between downtown Seattle and the City of Everett in Snohomish County via Edmonds and Mukilteo isn’t drawing enough ridership now to justify its continued existence. “The status quo of low ridership and high costs on North Sounder is not acceptable,” a special working group of the COP stated to Sound Transit Board Chairman Pat McCarthy in a cover letter to the report. The COP said the markedly higher per-boarding costs for North Sounder are especially troubling when Sound Transit’s “Sound Express” buses to and from Snohomish County are often standing room only. COP’s North Sounder Alternatives Task Force in the report urged Sound Transit to work with Mukilteo and Edmonds on the difficult challenge of improving parking capacity near those stations; also to confront another big but more long-term challenge of adding a North Seattle stop; and to set a 2020 deadline for bringing average daily ridership to originally projected levels of 2,400 per weekday.

The report noted that North Sounder average daily ridership on the line has never exceeded 1,200 per day, versus 2010 levels of 2,400 to 3,200 per day projected in the agency’s road map to the voter-approved “Sound Move” measure in 1996. In contrast five Sound Transit long haul bus routes between Snohomish County and Seattle together carry an average of 8,000 passengers per day. Sound Move projected that systemwide costs per boarding would be $11.97. They were not too much higher than that in 2011 at $12.71, but on North Sounder were $32.38. Per-boarding costs for 2011 were $10.19 on the Sounder South commuter train line and $7.54 on the crowded Sound Express Snohomish County-Seattle buses which run in the I-5 corridor, three to five miles east of the waterfront North Sounder route along Puget Sound.

North Sounder’s poor performance appears to be due to several factors, the task force found. Parking is pinched at the Edmonds and Mukilteo stops and suburban commuters less able and likely to bike or walk to the stations. Daily round trips are limited to four through an agreement with the BNSF freight line, which also uses the tracks. Early-on plans for additional stations further south on the line, at Richmond Beach and in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, were never realized. Perceived and actual reliability is another issue because of rainy season mudslides. The number of trips cancelled as a result was 70 in 2011 and 41 so far this year. Even after the debris is cleared, there is 48-hour blackout on trips after a mudslide.

The task force recommends several steps to Sound Transit to try to reverse North Sounder’s fortunes.


  • Push back morning departures in Edmonds and Mukilteo five minutes to catch more of the potential riders debarking from Washington State Ferries at both locations.
  • Despite obvious challenges, seek ways to expand parking at Mukilteo and Edmonds to draw more riders. Some parcels could perhaps be purchased and there’s a case to be made the communities should help cover the costs, the task force says.
  • A North Seattle station “could significantly improve ridership” but can “only be considered a long term measure” due to current funding constraints.
  • With board approval, deploy fewer cars per train and lease out the cars to other train operators.
  • Most of all, set a benchmark of achieving 2,400 average weekday riders by 2020.

  • The task force’s report emphasizes that it understands the importance of North Sounder to Snohomish county and the Sound Transit board’s commitment to it under adopted “sub-area equity” agreements spelling out who gets what in the broad, three-county service area. Nonetheless, the board adds, “we also appreciate the frustrations of the many riders who arrive at the Lynnwood, Ash Way and Mountlake Terrace transit centers every weekday morning and cannot get a seat on a bus or even board due to severe overcrowding….we appreciate the irritation of taxpayers who see an inefficient and inequitable allocation of resources to one mode that is underutilized while another is overloaded. We believe that Sound Transit and its board must seriously consider this situation.”

    UPDATE: Sound Transit spokesperson Kimberly Reason said the board will have a formal response to the report in 30 days. She emphasized the agency has made a considerable investment in commuter rail to Snohomish County including more than $200 million to BNSF for an easement to use the freight line’s tracks; and that voter-approved plans also bind the agency to continuing North Sounder service. She did say that to improve North Sounder ridership, ST is exploring leasing space for surface parking near the Mukilteo and Edmonds stations, considering improvements to bike and pedestrian access, and continuing research and marketing efforts. Adding to ST Snohomish County-Seattle express bus service is a non-starter, she said, because the agency is at peak hour capacity in that respect, and because adding new coaches would require unfunded spending for the rolling stock, plus maintenance. Reason also asserted that in the long term, Puget Sound regional roads will become less and less viable due to congestion and that train transit (commuter rail and light rail) will become a better and better option compared to buses or cars.

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    5 Responses to “North Sounder low ridership, high costs “not acceptable,” says oversight body”

    1. Kurt says:

      As a commuter who takes the Sounder daily from Mukilteo into Seattle I can tell you the chief problem is not the timing of the ferry traffic, rather it’s the uncordinated and lack of support by (connecting buses). I watch the ferry come in from Whidbey and the passengers walk off and over the train station with at least 5 minues to spare – no problem. Returning from Seattle the train and ferry are again coordinated.

      The buses IMO are the key to making this work or not. Why the geniuses can’t figure that out is beyond me. For example, I live in Mukilteo just off a bus line which runs and services the ferry schedule but not the trains. This is because there is roughly 300 to 400 yards you need to walk from the train to the bus stop. But by the time you get off the train and half way to the bus stop it leaves. I have spoken with riders in Edmonds with the same problem. (The bus service provider) has apparently been asked to adjust their schedule to accomodate the train riders. They need to do this at the Mukilteo stop as well.

      Public transportation of the three systems of train, bus and ferry could be better run by 5th graders. You find your hub, time all three to arrive and when everyone’s changed systems, leave. Is it really that hard? Politics I believe have entered into the equation.

    2. John Bailo says:

      I think this is a case of doing what works, and not doing what doesn’t work.

      South Sounder works great. It’s on a centralized route. It provides express service which is faster than buses. It has already built up an infrastructure of TOD at places like Kent and Auburn stations.

      We should be capitalizing on this success. I would take all the monies and resources (rolling stock) of North Sounder and redeploy to South Sounder.

      For example, I go into the city from Kent many times for entertainment like ball games and concerts. I like parking at Kent Station and taking the reverse Sounder in at 5:30pm but then I’m stuck having to take the milk run 150 bus back. How about a “Nite Owl” train or two at 10pm and 11pm back to Kent? We could cannibalize the unworkable N. Sounder to add to South Sounder.

    3. Daniel says:

      In addition to what Kurt says, the northline Sounder suffers from a horrendous lack of parking compared to the southline. Only the Everett station has acceptable parking.

    4. Walter says:

      This:
      The COP said the markedly higher per-boarding costs for North Sounder are especially troubling when Sound Transit’s “Sound Express” buses to and from Snohomish County are often standing room only.
      Parking at the park & ride locations of the “Sound Express” buses is terrible and for many of the morning and afternoon routes to be standing room only is unacceptable.

    5. [...] and Everett in the year’s first eight months, or 1.62 million versus just shy of 200,000. A recent report from Sound Transit’s Citizens Oversight Panel detailed reasons for North Sounder’s poor ridership (though it is up 24 percent compared to a [...]