Why Sound Transit's projects are so costly

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Sound Transit is on the move. The regional transportation authority, which operates rail and bus services in three central-Puget Sound counties, is completing a light-rail extension from downtown Seattle to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington campus, and has plans underway to extend its reach to Lynnwood to the north and Redmond to the east. A commuter rail system that extends from Everett to Lakewood is sprucing up stations and adding trains.

One day, the rail system will help hundreds of thousands of riders make their daily commutes to work at higher speeds than on our increasingly congested roads.

But so far, the system is costing much more and being used less than anybody initially expected.

Consider the 34-mile Sounder north line, which links Seattle to Everett. It was originally proposed as a six-train commuter service with six stops. But as costs shot up to $368 million from a projected $89 million, the agency cut back to four trains and four stations. About 1,100 riders use the line every weekday, far below the original forecast of 2,400 to 3,200 riders, for an average cost to the system of $330,000 per rider.

And here’s the kicker. After paying all that money up front, it still costs Sound Transit six times more to carry a rider from Everett to Seattle by train than by express bus. And the train doesn’t even stop anywhere in North Seattle, the area most likely to find ridership. Critics say that the Sounder north line actually violates a state law that authorizes commuter rail “whose passenger costs per mile, including costs of trackage, equipment,maintenance, operations and administration, are equal to or less than a comparable bus” on a similar route.

Sound Transit’s light-rail system, called Link, has also had its share of challenges. The 25 miles of light rail that voters were told would be completed by 2006 at a cost of $1.7 billion, have resulted in 23 miles of track which, when completed, will end up costing $5.2 billion.

The $2.6 billion spent so far on the starter light-rail line takes the rider from Westlake Station downtown to an airport station 0.4 mile from the terminal in 37 minutes. It replaced a bus that took less time and dropped passengers off right at the terminal.
The system now in place has 29,000 passenger boardings a day, less than a third of the 105,000 boardings Sound Transit predicted it would have by 2010.

To be sure, unforeseen circumstances including lower revenues due to the recent recession and a safety-related reduction on frequency of service in the transit tunnel has contributed to less completed track, lower ridership and higher cost.

And the agency’s operating costs are not out of line when compared to other metropolitan transit systems around the country. Even in terms of capital costs, some of its services are performing well. The Sounder south route from Seattle to Tacoma, for example, has been popular, resulting in a cost per average weekday rider of about $55,000 for putting the train in service. That’s relatively cheap compared to the $135,000 per rider that the Minneapolis-St. Paul transit system paid for its new commuter line. Still, there’s been a disturbing tendency throughout Sound Transit’s history to spend freely and raise eybrows.

Poor negotiations may be one part of the reason. Sound Transit originally estimated it would cost $65 million to buy from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway the right of way for its Seattle-Everett Sounder trains. The agency ended up paying $258 million for those rights. Minnesotans, by contrast, paid $107.5 million for rights to even more rail and service for its commuter line. And the Minneapolis line doesn’t face the constant mudslides that led to 122 canceled trips on the north line this winter.

The agency may have also chosen an unnecessarily expensive technology for its commuter rail system. The Sounder north line uses locomotives and coaches instead of a cheaper alternative called diesel multiple units (DMUs), which are essentially rail coaches with truck engines underneath the floor. Used by at least eight transit systems in the United States and Canada, DMUs are more economical because they consume less fuel and generally require fewer crew members. Tri-Rail, Miami’s commuter rail provider, which runs both DMU and conventional trains, has found that DMUs travel almost a mile on a gallon of fuel, while locomotives pulling a similar number of seats go less than half a mile.

In June 2010, as Sound Transit was weighing new equipment purchases, an Ohio DMU manufacturer, US Railcar, offered its product for the north line, whose four locomotives and 12 coaches could then have been moved to the Sounder south line. The agency rejected the approach, choosing instead to acquire three more locomotives for the south line at roughly $5 million each. Sound Transit says the DMUs would be harder to maintain.

The Citizen Oversight Panel (COP), a 15-member group of citizen volunteers appointed by Sound Transit, cautioned in a 2012 audit with regard to the north line that the agency “may have to come to terms with a reality that one of its services is not living up to a reasonable definition of viability.”

But asked if Sound Transit might shut down the costly line, Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl says “At this stage, absolutely not.” Earl says the Sounder north line is “a long-term investment,” and notes that the citizens of Snohomish County still seem to want the line.

 

Yet when it came to extending light rail into the Sea-Tac airport terminal for a more efficient plane-to-train connection that would have been a huge potential benefit to the 31 million people who pass through the airport each year, Sound Transit chose not to make the long-term investment. “There would have been very few options to get closer to the terminal without it being an insanely impactful thing for the flow at the airport,” says Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick. He points out that such an extension also would have proved very expensive.

Many of Sound Transit’s problems can be traced back to the rosy outlook of the earlier administration that put together the 1996 Sound Move proposal. That proposal, which included the light- rail system and 81 miles of commuter rail as well as other transit improvements, estimated the cost at $3.9 billion. But as Sounder and light rail expenses climbed, construction was delayed and inflation cut purchasing power, it quickly became clear that Sound Transit had vastly underestimated the price tag for the system.

Observers say Joni Earl has improved operations at Sound Transit since taking took over as CEO in 2001. “I think she turned the agency around,” says Bruce Agnew, a former COP member and current director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a transportation think tank. “She deserves a lot of credit for that.”

“We’re always trying to find ways to do things more economically,” Earl notes. “The old Sound Transit was ‘overpromise and underdeliver.’ Ours is ‘underpromise and overdeliver.’” She pointed to the current Westlake-to-Husky Stadium light-rail extension, which, in April, was running $107 million under budget and was five-and-a-half months ahead of schedule.

But while Earl may be a competent manager, she operates in an environment that seems to encourage spending on projects with a low return on investment. Consider the decision to spend $132.8 million on the First Hill streetcar, which will connect the International District to the Capitol Hill Link light-rail station, two points that are about to be connected by light rail. The streetcar was added in response to community demands after the agency had to drop a First Hill station from its light-rail project because of engineering obstacles. The $55-million-per-mile cost for the streetcar compares to $12 million a mile Spokane will have to spend if it goes ahead with its new downtown electric-bus line. Rail vehicles like streetcars are usually more efficient than buses because the steel-on-steel track-to-wheel interface minimizes friction. But that advantage becomes a drawback on steep hills, particularly in wet weather. An electric bus that didn’t have to worry about climbing hills could take a more direct route up First Hill, saving both travel time and taxpayer money. Sound Transit points out that streetcars tend to attract more riders than buses, a tendency often referred to as “rail bias.” And Earl argues that the First Hill streetcar was a one-off decision reached “through a lot of public process.”

A big test of Earl’s administration will be her execution of the Sound Transit 2 proposal passed by voters in 2008 as a sort of sequel to Sound Move. It calls for spending $11.8 billion to build 36 more miles of light rail, extending the system to the east as far as Overlake, about a mile and a half from the Microsoft campus, to the north as far as Lynnwood and to the south close to Federal Way. That would bring the light rail system total to 55 miles. The 36 new miles of track include almost six miles stricken from the original, underbudgeted Sound Move proposal.

Already, the agency has chosen not to build the 2.3 miles of new track that would have extended light rail to the south near Federal Way. Virtually all of Sound Transit’s funding comes from sales taxes collected in each subarea. Although all regions have seen tax revenues plunge, South King County was particularly hard hit with a 40.7 percent decline in sales taxes. As a result of the shorter line, Sound Transit has reduced its 2030 ridership target to 280,000, from its original target of 286,000. That number, if achieved, still represents an impressive tenfold increase in ridership compared to today.

The agency continues to be bound by costly decisions made in the past. Sound Transit’s 2013 budget, for example, includes $10.2 million toward an $18.3 million plan to build a second Sounder platform in Mukilteo. The plan includes $9 million to build a pedestrian overpass with two elevator towers for crossing the tracks. At present, the trains  use track crossovers to stop at a single platform for the 44 riders getting on or off each train on an average weekday. A town in Pennsylvania built a single-platform station such as that already used in Mukilteo for $3.6 million. Sound Transit’s Patrick says the agency is required to build the expensive two-platform station as part of its original right-of-way deal with BNSF.

 

But some costs still seem unnecessarily high. The 2013 budget features $15.1 million toward a $46 million replacement of the temporary Tukwila Sounder station. This includes $3 million for agency oversight of contractors and $11 million for real estate costs; $8.37 million of that has gone to acquire 10 acres, primarily for parking, at $21,000 per parking space. Also, the 2013 budget contains $3.1 million for the agency’s public art program and $441,000 to upgrade or replace 78 bicycle lockers—little houses for bikes—at the Sumner and Puyallup stations.

 
University of Washington Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Scott Rutherford, who sat on a Sound Transit-appointed expert panel that reviewed the original Sound Move proposal before it went on the ballot, says regional geography explains some of the agency’s big bills. “It’s a hard place to build anything, that’s for sure,” he says, referring to the region’s wasp-waisted geography. “It’s not like Dallas, where they just build another ring road.”

But Rutherford says an additional factor is the Puget Sound process. “I tell people who come here from out of town that the neighborhood is the highest form of government here,” he says. The First Hill streetcar is one example of overspending in response to pressure from local communities. Another is Sound Transit’s policy guaranteeing each of the five subareas in its taxing district services and projects “generally in proportion to the level of revenues each subarea generates.” That policy, dating from the 1996 Sound Move initiative, helps snare votes from outlying areas with fewer transit needs. But, in the words of Martin Duke, editor in chief of the Seattle Transit Blog, it has also obliged Sound Transit to “spend like crazy in outlying areas to offset the huge capital costs in the core.”

In the words of rail critic John Niles, the mandate “was certainly a factor in excessive capital on some projects,” including the heavy costs spent on the Sounder north project.

“Serving the destinations that our board and community members felt represented the highest priorities has required using more costly configurations to a greater extent than many regions,” concedes Sound Transit spokesman Patrick. Earl says she recognizes the problem and has tried to control it. Scope creep—the demands of local jurisdictions, unexpected environmental mitigations and the like—constitutes “one of our biggest challenges,” she says. Her policy on local jurisdictions seeking project add-ons: “If you want extras after the initial scoping, you pay for it.”

Still, she says the subarea equity policy helps win support for public transit from local jurisdictions “because they know that ... the money they’re spending is coming to help build transit in their geographical area, generally.”

Few question the importance of rail as a critical part of the area’s transit options. The Puget Sound region will continue to see dramatic population growth and, at a certain point, rail may be the only effective means of transporting so many people through the region’s narrow corridors. And as expensive as rail is, going forward it will still be cheaper than adding new roads. The Sprinter light-rail system near San Diego cost $22 million a mile, but a nearby freeway that opened at virtually the same time cost $84 million a mile while swallowing up more land and promising greater carbon emissions.

And the good news about rail is that it has great networking effects. Rail systems typically increase their ridership disproportionately as new extensions are built and commuters can travel efficiently to more destinations. So, while the early lines may have less ridership than anticipated, once the main lines are built and the transit system is properly connected, there’s a good chance the rail lines will be popular among commuters.

Demographic changes also support an increased reliance on rail. Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Szabo noted recently that between 2001 and 2009, young people reduced driving by 23 percent. Many of those nondrivers are showing up at train stations, glued to the mobile devices they find essential or simply thinking a ride more fun than a steering wheel.

But if the system is to be completed in a manner that serves the region and its riders in the most cost-effective manner, Sound Transit may have to worry a little less about the feelings of neighborhood groups and a little more about the efficiency of the system as a whole.

Editor’s Note: Author C.B. Hall has performed contractual work for the Cascadia Center for Regional Development.

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