Some Caveats on That Sounder Report

By Erica C. Barnett October 16, 2012


The Seattle Times picked up today on a story first reported by Seattle Transit Blog nearly two weeks ago: Sound Transit's northern Sounder service, which connects Seattle and Everett, is running far short of expectations.

Today's mainstream media coverage hit the top lines, but glossed over more complictated reasons—public policy decisions that amount to antitransit social engineering.

First, here's the basic picture.

Currently, according to Sound Transit's Citizens Oversight Panel report, the north Sounder line has an average of just 1,100 boardings every day at a cost of a little over $32 per trip, compared to 1996 projections of 2,400 to 3,200 daily boardings by 2010 (and a goal of about $12 per trip systemwide). 

On some days, as few as 700 people ride the northern Sounder route.

Additionally, an easement agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad ended up costing Sound Transit four times as much as the agency originally budgeted for fewer daily trips than initially planned ($258 million for four daily round trips, compared to the original $65 million estimate for six trips).

With farebox recovery—the amount of expenses Sound Transit makes back from fares—at an anemic 11 percent, that works out to a subsidy of about $29 per ride. In contrast, according to the report, Sound Transit Express buses in Snohomish County recover 29 percent of their costs from fares and cost the agency about $5 per ride. 

That's a pretty damning picture, and the coverage today—from the Times, which reported there were "too many empty seats" on Sounder trains, to KING 5, which said the report "suggests [the] Sounder North train should end"—has reflected that waste-of-taxpayer-dollars narrative. 

But the reality is a little more complicated. 

First, as the report itself notes, a rail line that runs along a shoreline, as the north Sounder train does, inherently draws from a smaller population. (Draw a circle around a transit station that's bordered by water; half of your potential geographical "catchment area," to use the transit jargon, has no inhabitants.) So Sounder will never have as many riders as comparable north-south buses that run up and down I-5. 

Second, there are a few built-in barriers to Sounder accessibility. First, the number of park-and-ride spots is clearly inadequate for a suburban commuter-rail service. I know, I know: parking bad. But at end-of-line suburban destinations, parking actually makes sense—especially in places, like Snohomish County, where funding cuts have decimated bus service. 

Which raises accessibility issue No. 2: If you dramatically reduce bus service, you make it harder for transit-dependent people to use the train, even assuming they can afford the higher ($4.50 each way, compared to $3.50 on Sound Transit Express and Community Transit buses) fare. Want to convince more people, particularly transit-dependent people, to ride the train? Don't make it impossible to reach by bus. 

And that, finally, leads to accessibility issue No. 3: Sounder runs just four times a day in each direction, with the last morning run leaving Everett at 7:15 and the final afternoon run leaving Seattle at 5:35—the same number it was making back in 2001, when I first wrote about flaws with the service. If anything, Sound Transit should add more runs to serve commuters who don't work during that narrow schedule, not cut, as some have suggested—lower service standards further, and lower ridership becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

On the other hand (because there's always an other hand): As STB points out, light rail to Lynnwood is scheduled to open in 2023, providing "a fast connection into the hearts of the region’s biggest job centers that will be totally immune to traffic and mudslides, and run every 10 minutes or better, all day and into the evening, every day." That could make Sounder service redundant—assuming Community Transit provides good bus connections to the Lynnwood station (or, indeed, still exists).

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