State Auditor confirms Sound Transit light rail ridership forecasts are unrealistic
In January, the State Auditor's Office agreed to conduct a performance on a number of items related to Sound Transit. Part of the audit was based on a WPC request to reconcile some of the agency's ridership and financial forecasting issues.
The SAO just released the results of that audit. Here are the key findings:
- The Sound Transit Board has not always taken action to fully address COP concerns. We question some practices related to COP selection and whether COP members fully understand their watchdog role. We found transparency to the public regarding the COP’s work can be improved.
- Sound Transit’s initial adjustments to its original ST2 plan were sufficient and appropriate. However, it now has a smaller than recommended contingency to cover possible cost overruns.
- Except for its need to increase its ST2 project contingency, Sound Transit has an organizational structure, policies and procedures, expertise, and other resources in place to successfully accomplish most of the adjusted ST2 plan within budget. It has positively responded to previous audit recommendations.
- Sound Transit’s ST2 forecast requires a growth rate for Link light rail ridership through 2030 that appears to be challenging. Economic and employment forecasts indicate questions about its reliability. Sound Transit should adjust ridership assumptions that no longer are valid.
The full report can be found here: http://www.sao.wa.gov/AuditReports/AuditReportFiles/ar1008277.pdf
On the ridership issue, we found that PSRC officials estimate in their Transportation 2040 Plan that light rail ridership will be half of what Sound Transit officials told voters in 2008.
The audit found, "Sound Transit’s ST2 2030 Link light rail ridership forecast requires a growth rate that exceeds the growth rates achieved by most transit investments in other areas of the United States." "For Sound Transit to meet its ST2 forecast of 86.5 million annual boardings in 2030, 2011 boardings for Link light rail (7.8 million) must grow at an annual rate of 13.5 percent for the next 19 years."
Such a growth rate is unrealistic in good times and especially so during the current economic recession. This basically shows that PSRC's estimate is more accurate and the SAO recommends that Sound Transit officials revise their ridership projections based on more realistic assumptions like those found in the PSRC plan.
This is little consolation to voters who have approved Sound Transit's tax increases based on the agency's inflated projections. This has been a troubling pattern for Sound Transit. Sound Transit officials continue to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs and once they receive approval from voters to increase taxes, their promises fall apart.
Combined with the other SAO finding that the Sound Transit Board has not always taken action to fully address concerns from its own Citizen's Oversight Panel, WPC continues to recommend that the state legislature make Sound Transit's board of directors an elected body, so voters can hold the agency accountable.