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.
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.