Sound Transit officials report ridership figures, down 70% from original plan.

July 28, 2013

Sound Transit officials recently said their agency’s June 2013 ridership figures averaged 32,000 weekday boardings.  They were quick to tout this as a 14% increase over June 2012, but conveniently ignored the fact their ridership is far below what they promised voters when the program began.

Sound Transit head Joni Earl proudly highlights June 11 as a banner day, with 38,000 boardings, however on that day a Mariner game and a World Cup qualifier soccer match were both being played in SODO, so it wasn’t a typical day. Understandably, Sound Transit officials are putting the best face possible on their low ridership numbers, but a more accurate picture comes from looking at what they promised the public in the first place.

Sound Transit laid the ground work for light rail in their ballot measure, titled Sound Move, in 1996. To justify the level of public money they were seeking, light rail boosters that year said Sound Transit would carry 107,000 trips per weekday by 2010.  Clearly facing failure by 2006, Sound Transit said they would serve only 35,821 trips per weekday, a 66% cut. In 2009, Sound Transit backed away further on their ridership promise, down to 29,467 per weekday, a 72% cut from their original commitment.

Last year, the State Auditor examined Sound Transit’s light rail ridership projections for accuracy. The Auditor’s report found Sound Transit’s ridership projections were consistently wrong. Referring to the ST2 ballot measure passed in 2008, the audit concluded that the expansion of light rail would again leave ridership short of projections.

While Sound Transit did eventually lower some of their long term ridership projections on light rail, albeit relatively minimal, celebrating these milestones misses the point. Taxpayers were promised much more than they are receiving, and when taxpayers pay billions of dollars for light rail, they expect to receive what they were originally promised.

The 32,000 trips averaged in June represent about .2% of all daily person trips in the Puget Sound area. Statewide, the 31 public transit agencies serve about 2.3% of daily trip demand, over 90% is served by personal automobile.

Comments

Wow, almost every car centric

Wow, almost every car centric comment here is made by someone who's never had to work a day in their life. Have fun having mommy and daddy bail you out when you lose your precious cars and the busses are gone.

How many voters care what rail costs?

You note, "Taxpayers were promised much more than they are receiving, and when taxpayers pay billions of dollars for light rail, they expect to receive what they were originally promised."

I feel this way about getting what I pay for, and I know many others who object to the vast spending on Puget Sound regional rail transit for so little resulting ridership, but now I wonder if my attitude and yours is generally shared by the majority of voters.

Here's why:

The lack of Sound Transit performance commensurate with billions of dollars spent in the first dozen years of agency life was clear in November 2008 when voters approved the agency's plan to double its tax rate. Sound Transit got the green light to spend even more money for more construction disruption and higher levels of so far unachievable promised ridership.

In that election, voters approved billions more for rail construction even before the Seattle light rail was opened for business in July 2009, when it immediately began to show its poor ridership performance eventually noted by the State Auditor's report and a Sound Transit confession report with a long list of excuses sent to the Federal Transit Administration.

But going on five years after this public vote endorsement, I'm beginning to think that the majority of regional voters think rail transit is a grand idea even if it costs more than expected, takes longer to build than planned, and carries fewer riders than forecast. They simply like thinking about trains and talking about them, even if they ride them rarely or never, and pay a high sales tax to have the service.

Making the story even worse, we now have on record since 2010 that our regional transportation planning agency -- Puget Sound Regional Council, PSRC -- is forecasting future rail ridership in 2040 at about half the level of what Sound Transit promised for 2030 to earn voter approval in 2008 of phase 2 expansion. And the regional planners are even assuming in their lower ridership forecast that phase 3 rail expansion to Everett, Tacoma, and Redmond will be approved and built!

It's like PSRC knows that voters like rail so much that they will pay for it with local taxes even though the ridership commitments that Sound Transit makes to the public to get Federal grants to fill the funding gap are not being fulfilled.

The issue of ridership versus spending will next come to a head when the phase 3 Sound Transit tax increase proposal comes before voters, perhaps as soon as 2016, and by 2020 for sure. Current Sound Transit TV ads to gain more ridership tell us that the agency is concerned that its luck with voters might not hold, but I'm thinking lately that there is no stopping the agency in its spending for train tracks that create remarkably little change in how people move around.

Still, there are some troubling, unresolved issues that Sound Transit is keeping a lid on, that may spur some new awareness of cost and benefit if they boil over...

Sound Transit

Light Rail has been an unmitigated disaster. It will never deliver on its promises because it is such an inferior form of transportation. Why did streetcars die? For the same reason light rail will die after billions of tax dollars are wasted. Rail only goes from point A to point B. Neither the street cars or light rail goes where people want to go when they want to go. Only the private automobile allows the freedom to travel to and from points A, B and C-Z. Light Rail can never do that and thus will never function as anything more than a control mechanism for liberal politicians.

Who doesn't love Ron Sims'

Who doesn't love Ron Sims' choo choo?

He, like Chairman Dow, just like their little boy choo choo trains.

Public trans.

Want to see what Kitsap County has done with Fast Foot Ferries? 5 million for the Rich Passage I. ferry and Kitsap Transit has FOUND money to run this ferry in their budget? But there is not enough buss service for many who need transportation in Kitsap County. Imagin a perect world where the public (you and I) won't end up paying for another pipe dream. Promisses, promisses I don't think there is much value in wishes and there is no accountability of government.

Transit and Boats

After reading about Kitsap County's hole in the water into which it pours money, I am reminded that King County, yes the very same entity which wants more money for its buses also has a hole in the water into which it pours tax dollars. It is called the
West Seattle Water Taxi. Until King County can make a case that the boat ride to and from West Seattle is paying for itself, it should not get another cent for its buses. Park the boat, abolish the Marine Division and its overpaid bureaucrats, and use the savings to fund buses.