Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Profound Differences in Official Forecasts of Future Rail Ridership Still Remain 

by PITF Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief John Niles

Regional planning agency PSRC forecasts much lower rail ridership in 2040 than Sound Transit promised as the future result in 2030 of implementing a doubling of tax revenue in the ST2 Plan of 2008.  Scroll down to Question 3 for the details.

I was motivated to attend Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) Friday Forum on July 20, 2012 at Sound Transit headquarters because it was advertised as an event where the agency’s CEO would answer “all your questions.” As prelude to asking Question 1, I indicated verbally to TCC Executive Director Rob Johnson, the moderator, as well as the rest of the room, that I had four more questions, and awaited my turn to ask them following others. However, Mr. Johnson cut the Forum short by 20 minutes -- at 1:10 P.M. instead of 1:30 P.M. and did thus did not let me ask the last four of five question I had prepared and brought to the Forum.

Here's the one I did get to ask:

  1. Question asked: What's the substance and timing of Sound Transit plans to bring the cost per passenger mile of Sounder commuter rail below the cost per passenger mile on existing parallel public bus routes? This requirement of state law was claimed during planning in the 1990s to be achievable. Is superior cost efficiency for Sounder over buses still considered possible, and does Sound Transit have a plan to get there?  [Asked by JN and answered by the CEO – Sound Transit believes the market served by this route is not mature and is taking market research action to come up with additional activities to attract more riders. She also indicated that the legal requirement is not an issue for the present because the train in question passed a legal review before it started, and was implemented with voter approval.]  For further background and the PITF take on this issue, click here to read "Sound Transit's Commuter Train Between Everett and Seattle Costs so Much that it's Illegal."

    Following the abrupt end of the event, I went forward and handed CEO Joni Earl the remaining four questions in writing and she courteously indicated that she would respond in the near future. The answers came within a few days in an email.  I would rather have had a spontaneous response in a public forum from the Sound Transit top manager instead of staff-scrubbed written responses, shown below in numbers (2) through (5).

  2. Question asked: Has a particular track bridge design for the transition of the East Link light rail tracks onto and off of the I-90 bridge been selected for the required testing at the U.S. Government’s Colorado Springs train testing facility, and in what future month do you now estimate that this testing will take place? [Answer later from staff: Yes, we selected a preferred track bridge design last fall called CESURA, short for Curved Element SUpported RAil. We are in the process of developing the prototype fabrication and testing schedule and will report to the board this coming fall. We provided an update to the Joint Transportation Committee of the State Legislature on this last week, pdf here.]  Comment from PITF:  There was a video shown on how CESURA is planned to work at 21 minutes into the January 12th meeting of the Sound Transit Board's Capital Committee, available to view in the video archive.  Sound Transit staff have indicated to me this video may be posted on YouTube. The construction of East Link doesn't begin until 2015, so there is apparently time left to get done what needs to be done, with worldwide experts said to be working on the required design.

  3. Questions asked: Certain staff at Sound Transit and Puget Sound Regional Council know that the respective official future ridership forecasts for rail transit by the two agencies are radically different:  Specifically, Sound Transit’s claimed ridership for ST 2 in 2030 is double what PSRC forecasts for ten years later in 2040 with both ST2 and ST3 implemented.  When will Sound Transit staff be offering an explanation? [Answer later from staff: PSRC and ST have had differing approaches to modeling transit ridership in the past. However, of late the two agencies’ modeling results have been more closely aligned. We are satisfied, for example, that the contemporary PSRC regional analyses done in connection with the state’s major projects – SR 520 and SR 99 in particular – are generally consistent with our conclusions about forecasted rail ridership.] Comment from PITF: Sound Transit in June published its 2012 Financial Plan that indicates on page 12, Table 1, an updated forecast for combined Sounder and Central Link annual rail ridership in 2030 of 89.1 million. This translates, dividing by an annualization factor of 305, to 292,000 per weekday. Underlining the concern implied in the question I asked, the standing PSRC forecast in the T-2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan for regional rail ridership 10 years later in 2040, is still 164,400. In other words, PSRC foresees much lower rail ridership in 2040 than Sound Transit expects in 2030.  

  4. Question asked: The Sound Transit financial plan shows the agency’s tax collections from 2013 to 2040 will total 36 billion dollars. As the expected achievement from that investment, Puget Sound Regional Council in the official Metropolitan Transportation Plan forecasts a rail market share of about 1% of motorized trips in the region in 2040. What other expected performance improvements does Sound Transit expect will result from collecting and spending 36 billion dollars over three decades, mostly for building, operating, and maintaining light rail and commuter trains? [Answer later from staff: Sound Transit has voter authority to develop the ST2 capital program, and to operate and maintain the system thereafter. We have not planned for additional transit investments beyond 2023. Once the ST2 program is done, we are required to either a) roll back tax collections to only what is needed to operate & maintain the system, or b) seek voter approval to pursue additional capital investments. If and when the ST Board directs staff to plan a third phase capital program, we will develop costs and benefits in accordance with our planning requirements.] Comment from PITF:  Indeed, the PSRC mode split forecast for 2040 assumes an ST3 investment program while the Sound Transit financial plan does not. The question needs to be revised to focus on Sound Transit's own ridership performance goals for 2030 with an assumption of no further investment beyond ST2.

  5. Question asked: A number of older Seattle residents tell me they want more parking at light rail stations. They want to drive, park at a station, and then ride light rail, rather than walk, bike, or bus between their home and the station.  Hills, weather, and winter darkness are mentioned as issues in wanting to use a car to get to the train. I explain in response about the policy and financial constraints limiting station parking in City of Seattle, but is there anything else to be said as explanation about so little parking at light rail stations? [Answer later from staff: Parking is an important part of ensuring people have access to the regional transit system. The ST2 plan includes funding to add significant additional parking capacity to the system, particularly at existing Sounder facilities and several new light rail stations in the north, east and south corridors. The ST Board has asked staff to begin more active management of existing parking resources in order to maximize available parking for transit users, and also to emphasize multi-modal access to stations as we plan system expansion. We reported recently to the ST Board Executive and Operations committees on the status of these efforts (materials attached). One of the themes we’ve emphasized with the Board and public is that station planning requires coordination with existing municipal codes. When planning new stations and parking improvements, we will work with each host jurisdiction to develop access to those facilities that integrates as much as possible with the local community.]

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Last modified: August 05, 2012

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