Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Sound Transit’s ridership up, but big challenges loom

by Matt Rosenberg October 11th, 2012

Commuter volume through August of this year on the buses and trains of Seattle’s regional transit agency Sound Transit was 18.5 million, up 11.7 percent compared to the same time last year. Regional express buses have carried a majority of Sound Transit’s riders from January through August of 2012. That could shift as the starter light rail system is built out over the next decade and if commuter rail usage grows. But overall, as a proportion of all in-region passenger trips, transit use in Central Puget Sound is expected to grow only from 2.9 percent in 2006 to no more than 5.3 percent by 2040.

The new year-to-date ridership numbers were presented at the October 4 meeting of Sound Transit’s Operations and Administration Committee. In percentage terms, growth in passenger boardings so far this year was greatest on ST’s Regional Express buses at 12.8 percent, followed by an 11.6 percent bump on its two Sounder commuter rail lines, to the north and south from downtown Seattle. Central Link light rail, currently running from downtown to Sea-Tac Airport, saw a 10.9 percent increase in traffic through August of this year versus last year, and Tacoma Link light rail was up 7.1 percent. If Sound Transit patronage continues at the same pace for the last third of 2012, annual boardings would total about 24.5 million.

Lion’s share of ST riders on buses, not trains
A detailed breakdown shows that the Regional Express buses have carried the lion’s share of Sound Transit’s riders through August of this year, or 10.2 million, versus 5.72 million on Central Link, 1.82 million on Sounder commuter rail and 677,000 on Tacoma Link.

On commuter rail, south line has eight times more passengers than north line
Responding to a query, ST staff noted that South Sounder commuter rail between downtown Seattle and Tacoma has carried eight times as many riders as the North Sounder line between Seattle 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 year ago) and suggested the agency closely examine shifting resources to overloaded ST express buses between the north metro region and downtown Seattle.

Big drop in planned revenues
Initially authorized by voters in 1996, Sound Transit eventually won public support in 2008 to expand its starter light rail system, Central Link. According to current agency estimates it will be completed north to the University District in Seattle in 2016, on to Northgate in North Seattle by 2021 and suburban Lynnwood in 2023. Also to be completed by 2023, the agency currently says, are the East Link light rail extension from Seattle across Lake Washington to Redmond (via Bellevue) and the Central Link extension south to Kent/Des Moines in south King County. But expected revenues have dropped 30 percent from projections made to voters in 2008, and expansion promises made then were rolled back.

Cost control key to success – but project cutbacks or more taxes could be sought
ST spokesperson Geoff Patrick said of the revenue shortfall, “during the current budget process we are flagging that. While we believe it is likely within reach to keep those 2023 (project completion) schedules it will require tremendous focus on cost controls and likely other actions to realign our investments over the next couple of years.” He explained that the appointed board’s focus is delivering promised projects on time and within budget but if that effort can’t stay on track then options would include using the uncommitted funds or bonding capacity of some of ST’s designated “sub-areas;” or seeking approval from lawmakers and voters for more fees or taxes. Other approaches could be scaling back projects or pushing back timelines, he added.

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State audit due by month’s end
In the $17.8 billion 2008 ballot measure, by 2023 Central Link was to have reached further south, to 272nd Street in Federal Way. Additionally, the initial ballot measure in 1996 had promised Central Link would reach UW by 2006 rather than 2016, as now. The agency is now being scrutinized in a pending performance audit by the office of State Auditor Brian Sonntag, which will include a focus on future ridership projections because fares help pay for expansion. Results are due this month.

109 million boardings projected for 2030
ST now projects 109 million annual boardings across all modes by 2030, up from its 2010 total of 24 million. By comparison, in 2010, according to the National Transit Database, King County Metro Transit had 113.6 million unlinked trips, or boardings; Kitsap (County) Transit had almost 3.9 million; Snohomish County’s Community Transit 10 million; (City of) Everett Transit 2.4 million; and Pierce (County) Transit just shy of 15.3 million.

The big picture: mode splits
But a perhaps broader issue for transit and environmental advocates in the region is the relatively anemic share of all daily trips that will occur on transit now and in the future in Central Puget Sound, according to the region’s designated transportation planning body.

According to Exhibit 4-26 in the 2010 Final Environmental Impact Statement of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s “Transportation 2040″ plan, in 2006 transit in the four-county metro region accounted for 10.4 percent of work trips, walking and biking for 5.5 percent, carpooling for 8.9 percent and single-occupant vehicles for 75.3 percent. For non-work trips, which Exhibit 4-27 shows were five times more frequent in 2006, transit and biking/walking had respective mode shares of 1.4 percent and 11.4 percent, versus 49.9 percent for carpooling and 37.2 percent for single-occupant vehicles.

As a proportion of all trips, transit is expected to grow from 2.9 percent in 2006 to as much as 5.3 percent by 2040, according to Exhibit 4-26 of the March 2010 final EIS, although that projection could be updated in months or years to come.


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