Second of three parts
Part 1: Ridership today and the suggested Sound Transit sales tax increase.
Part 2: Real riders speak, and Sound Transit's model isn't what they want to buy.
Part 3: The must-do agenda for transit and smart growth.
Sound Transit wants to hear from people about a plan for a 30 percent to 40 percent (depending on where you live) increase in the sales tax slice devoted to transit. The plan would put billions of dollars into the lap of the board of directors to spend on capital projects for Sound Transit's 10 percent share of the region's transit service. The big investments would be 18 miles of light rail extensions, serving just a few communities, and station improvements and beefed up frequency on the Sounder commuter rail train through Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent, and Tukwila, from Tacoma to Seattle.
Riders could first use the big projects in 2020. Ten years later, by 2030, 22 years from now, the new projects would have produced a gain in daily ridership, according to Sound Transit, equal to about 20 percent of today's daily regional transit ridership, although many of those riders would just be shifting their transit trip to a rail car from a bus.
Meanwhile, the rest of the regional transit system — 90 percent of today's current ridership — operated by King County Metro, Community Transit in Snohomish County, Pierce Transit, Everett Transit, and Washington State Ferries, already with hundreds of thousands of daily boardings, is bursting at the seams with near double-digit annual ridership gains pressed on existing services by gas-price woes to which no end is in sight and, at least for now, traffic congestion.
What's right with this Sound Transit plan?
Not much. Because it would fail to leverage much of Sound Transit's huge proposed tax-funded spending in the markets where transit growth is happening today and where the most important opportunities and needs for transit improvements and growth are presented tomorrow.The best proof of the plan's failings lies in little-noticed but critically important details of Sound Transit's reports on its own growth spurt in transit ridership. And looking at the evidence from the other parts of the regional system and other places around the country just underscores the flaws in Sound Transit's approach.
The big route connecting Bellevue and Seattle isn't where the riders are
You can start right at the top by laying Sound Transit's own ridership reports against the plan's main event: $2.1 billion in spending to serve Bellevue-Seattle customers (with Mercer Island riders to boot) with a light rail extension between downtown Seattle and Bellevue and Overlake.
This light rail line would replace the Queen Elizabeth II of Sound Transit's regional express bus system, the Route 550 express bus. Today, the 550 makes more than 60 trips each way every day, every few minutes during rush hour. It has been Sound Transit's biggest express bus route, and with travel times just about the same as light rail, it defines the case for Sound Transit's approach of building out an east-west light rail main line. It would connect up with Central Link light rail, which runs north-south, basically paralleling Interstate 5 through downtown Seattle on which construction is moving ahead to a hoped-for mid-2009 opening.
But there's a stark message drowned out in Sound Transit's crowing over an overall 2007 to 2008 jump of 16 percent in overall ridership.
Which Sound Transit express bus route in that period produced growth less than half the rate [PDF] of the Sound Transit system average? Hint: it's the same route that shows lower daily boardings today than in 2001.
Yes, it's Route 550 between Bellevue and Seattle on the I-90 bridge, drifting for years between 5,000 and 6,000 daily boardings and, even with infusion of a few new riders this year, not yet recovering the peak ridership level of 2001.
The riders are flocking instead to stronger transit routes all over the region
It's not hard to contrast that performance with the routes — Sound Transit's own and others — where ridership is surging. They're different.
Take, for example, Route 535, Lynnwood to Bellevue, Sound Transit's top growth performer of any route, rail or bus, with a 31 percent one-year jump in passenger boardings for the first quarter of 2008.
Or Route 554, Issaquah to Seattle via Eastgate: only 35 or so round trips a day, but a 17 percent one year jump in ridership.
Another big winner was Route 545, Redmond-Seattle, operating over the Highway 520 bridge. Last quarter it added twice as many new riders compared to a year ago than Bellevue-Seattle Route 550, at twice the percentage gain (14), and it has now all but overtaken the Bellevue-Seattle Route 550 in total ridership.
Also in contrast to the lackluster Sound Transit Route 550 on the I-90 corridor, where the big light rail line would be, are King County Metro's routes in the Eastside suburbs and connecting them to Seattle. They, too, showed dramatic increases:
- Route 245, Kirkland to Factoria via Overlake. was up 24 percent (December 2007 over December 2006).
- Route 253, Redmond to Seattle via Crossroads, Bellevue, and the 520 transit stops was up 22 percent.
- Route 255, Juanita to Seattle via Kirkland and the 520 transit stops, was up 10 percent.
- Route 271, Issaquah to the University District, was up 12 percent.
Each of these routes gained more riders over the course of a year than did Sound Transit Route 550 back and forth between Bellevue and Seattle across Mercer Island.
It wasn't just nearby routes serving the transit markets on the Eastside that smoked Sound Transit Route 550. Consider Sound Transit Route 522, Woodinville to Seattle, 33 round trips a day along the Lake City Way/Bothell Way corridor. An 11 percent year-to-year increase in daily boardings since 2007.
Or Sound Transit's own express bus service on the I-5 corridor, between Seattle and Tacoma and Lakewood (reported collectively by Sound Transit as Route 590/592/594/595) . That route showed an 18 percent gain in first-quarter ridership. It actually pushed aside Bellevue-Seattle Route 550 at the top of the Sound Transit ranking table, with almost 5,200 boardings a day.
Blue-ribbon honors, though, go to Pierce Transit's Route 1 into and through downtown Tacoma, joining it to Tacoma Community College on one end and Spanaway on the other. More than 60 trips each way daily and over 8,000 daily boardings. Last year, Pierce Transit increased service on this route by four percent and harvested a 12 percent ridership increase, amounting to almost 1,000 additional daily boardings.
Another blue ribbon winner, Metro Route 358 on Aurora Avenue North, most recently reporting more than 9,600 daily boardings. Even that pales before Metro workhorses like Route 48, connecting areas of the city west and south via the University District, and Metro Route 7 connecting Rainier Beach, Rainier Avenue South, and the International District with each other and with downtown Seattle. Both are recording well more than 10,000 daily boardings. These are just a few highlights from many good examples.
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