The Seattle Times
June 6, 2005
Sound Transit's leaders may feel a glow of accomplishment when a second round-trip Sounder commuter train debuts today between Everett and Seattle.
But they also will face a moment of truth.
Ridership on the 18-month-old Sounder North line has been anemic, attracting only 150 or 160 round-trip commuters on a typical workday. That's about half what Sound Transit forecast when service began.
The agency's top managers have blamed the train's troubles mostly on its limited schedule: one trip south to Seattle in the morning, one trip north to Everett at night. That's too inflexible to fit most commuters' lives, they've said, contending that if they had more trains, they could draw more riders.
Starting today, they will find out if they were right.
"I think the reaction to the second train will be a real harbinger of what's in store," says Everett City Councilman Mark Olson, who also is a vice chairman of the Sound Transit board. "It will give a pretty good indication of the usefulness of this mode of transportation, whether the market is there."
Low ridership isn't the only problem that has plagued the 35-mile Sounder North line.
It began running three years later than planned. Capital costs, including right-of-way, have nearly quadrupled, to $385 million, since voters approved the project as part of the "Sound Move" package of regional rail and bus projects in 1996. Potential riders in Mukilteo still are waiting for a promised station.
Only Sound Transit's Seattle light-rail project has been attacked more fiercely by the agency's critics.
"This is not cost-effective transit at all," Maggie Fimia of the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives says of Sounder North.
The line's supporters counsel patience.
"This is a long-term investment," says Bruce Agnew of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank. "The population is continuing to explode up north."
He and other backers have been heartened in recent weeks by two rays of good news: Sound Transit announced last month that the second train, originally scheduled to begin carrying passengers in September, would start running three months earlier.
And just last week officials said it looks like they can begin serving Mukilteo by mid-2007, six months to a year earlier than planned.
But Sounder North's troubles aren't all in the past. Sound Transit is counting on the addition of two more round-trip trains in December 2007 to meet long-term ridership goals. The agency now acknowledges that, because of unforeseen delays in getting environmental permits, there's a high risk that schedule will slip.
Back at the table
The new problem is rooted in the agreement Sound Transit and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) signed in December 2003 after years of negotiations.
It gives the transit agency the right to eventually run four trains — down from six promised in Sound Move — on the railroad's tracks. In return, BNSF gets $258 million. That's much more than Sound Transit forecast in the mid-1990s, and it's the chief reason the project's costs have soared.
To accommodate the Sounder trains, BNSF plans to add a second, parallel track along several stretches where now there is just one. In some places Puget Sound beaches and wetlands will be filled to provide a roadbed for the new track.
That requires permits from state and federal environmental agencies — permits that, per the agreement, Sound Transit must obtain for BNSF.
But the agreement also says the transit agency can't start operating the third and fourth trains until two years after it gets permits for the fill along Puget Sound. To hit its December 2007 start date, Sound Transit needs those permits by the end of this year.
That won't happen, says Agnes Govern, Sound Transit's capital-projects director; the permit applications won't even be submitted until later this summer.
Sound Transit was ready to apply last December, she says, but as BNSF refined its construction plans, it determined that another acre of shoreline fill would be needed to protect the new roadbed from erosion.
That meant Sound Transit had to revise the applications and come up with new plans to mitigate the extra environmental impact.
Eric Stockdale of the state Department of Ecology, one of the agencies responsible for issuing the permits, praises Sound Transit for reducing the amount of fill for the project to just a few acres. "I don't think we are looking at an unpermittable project," he says.
But Stockdale couldn't estimate how long it would take his agency to act once the applications are filed.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit is back at the table with BNSF, seeking a new agreement that would allow the third and fourth trains to start operating on schedule in December 2007. Neither party would discuss details.
When the first Sounder North train started operating just before Christmas in 2003, Sound Transit forecast the new line would carry 175,000 one-way riders in 2004.
Three months later, with ridership lagging, a spokesman admitted that goal was out of reach.
To attract more riders, a year ago Sound Transit moved the morning train's departure time back 15 minutes so riders could more easily get to their downtown Seattle jobs by 8 a.m. In October it kicked off a promotion that allows commuters to use Sound Transit passes to ride Amtrak trains between Everett, Edmonds and Seattle.
Despite those tweaks, weekday ridership remained flat. Just 97,000 one-way passengers took the train last year — and 20,000 of them weren't weekday commuters, but sports fans on special trains bound for weekend football and baseball games.
Operating expenses per passenger topped $40 per one-way trip.
Marty Minkoff, Sound Transit's transit-services director, says the 175,000-rider projection wasn't highly scientific. "We overestimated the utility of having just one train," he says.
Based on that experience, the agency has scaled back its ridership forecasts for the next few years. Eighteen months ago it projected 200,000 one-way riders in 2005, and 250,000 in 2006.
Now it forecasts 125,000 riders this year, 175,000 next. The Sound Move goal of 600,000 annual riders has been pushed back from 2010 to 2011; critics say that's still unrealistic.
Minkoff says the second train should boost ridership about 12 percent over the summer, 15 percent by next June. He's also counting on upcoming construction on Interstate 5 to create congestion and nudge more commuters toward the train.
The state Department of Transportation plans to start building high-occupancy-vehicle lanes through Everett in September. "This is just going to be a nightmare," says the Discovery Institute's Agnew.
Sound Transit is beginning work on a second round of transit projects and taxes to submit to voters, perhaps next year. Despite Sounder North's slow start, there's talk of expanding it.
The city of Edmonds wants more daily trains. The Port of Seattle wants a new station in Seattle's Interbay neighborhood.
Fimia says expanding Sounder would compound what already is a big mistake. She points to a state law that allows Sound Transit to develop commuter rail only if it's more cost-effective than a comparable bus system.
But Olson, the Sound Transit vice chairman, says he's open to the possibility. The decision could hinge on how the second train fares, he says.
The second train's debut is a pivotal moment for Sounder North, says Reid Shockey, a former Everett planning director who once served on Sound Transit's Citizen Oversight Panel.
"If the [ridership] numbers trend upwards," he says, "it'll be a signal that the problem was a scheduling problem, that it wasn't because people didn't like rail."
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or email@example.com