After more than a decade of planning and anticipation, on October 8, Sound Transit (ST) began Sounder commuter rail service to and from Lakewood, adding a full eight miles south of the double-deck trains' previous terminus in Tacoma. Initial ridership has been underwhelming.
In the first 17 days of revenue service, a total of 237 passengers boarded the five daily trains, on average, at the two new stops, South Tacoma and Lakewood. Prior to the release of the actual data last week, ST had forecast 380 to 530 daily boardings within the first two years of operation.
To reach that anticipated level in October of 2014, by which time a planned sixth round-trip will have begun, ST will need a 60-125 percent increase in ridership. By comparison, the first two years of service to Everett, on the north Sounder route, saw ridership growth in the 50 percent range, also with the introduction of one new train [See graph.]
“It'll take a while for people to get in the flow of things,” was the reaction from Stuart Scheuerman, who chairs ST's Citizen Oversight Panel (COP), a committee of volunteers appointed by the ST board. “I'm sure it'll make its quota, if not exceed it.”
“Not bad,” Sounder operations manager Martin Young rated the ridership, emphasizing that the forecast figure is for two years out.
“It's still too early to cast doubts on the service,” cautioned Lloyd Flem, executive director of All Aboard Washington (AAWA), the state's passenger-rail advocacy group.
As to how ST might get the figures to the forecast level, AAWA president Loren Herrigstad said, “My biggest concern is that Sound Transit is not designing Sounder stations for our Puget Sound climate. They’re designing stations as if we were warm and sunny California."
In his capacity as president, Herrigstad has toured the Lakewood extension, but when traveling to Seattle he bypasses the new stations to pick up the Sounder in Tacoma. "The South Tacoma shelters are very light and not adequate. The Lakewood station has almost no place to wait under when it rains, except in the parking garage. There's no restrooms at either Lakewood or South Tacoma, no heated waiting area, and no place to get a snack or a coffee, nothing. The Lakewood Station garage does have three restrooms, but they're for the ST Express and Pierce Transit bus drivers only."
“We would probably have some opposition from taxpayers” about building more elaborate facilities, Young responded, “when that's just not the way we do it in transit.” Sound Transit service planning manager Mike Bergman noted that the trains pull in at Lakewood at least a few minutes early, and are open for use of their facilities, or to get out of the wet, as soon as they arrive.
The less-than-stellar figures won't help Sound Transit in the wake of recent grousing over the performance of the more lightly trafficked north line service. Last year the Sounders' recovery ratio – that is, the percentage of expenses defrayed by fares – stood at a respectable 32 percent for the south line, but only 11 percent for the Everett route, according to a September COP report.
Although it notes that ridership on the north route has been averaging only about 140 passengers per three-car train, the report, in its own words, was “not suggesting that Sound Transit dismantle the existing north Sounder service,” the report gave that eventuality at least some credence merely by mentioning it.
By contrast, the per-passenger-mile cost of the Lakewood trains, even if their ridership remains as is, may mark an improvement over the cost of their predecessor Sounders, which only went to and from Tacoma. It's a matter of a few extra miles of service without a whole new train. The increased ridership, while not huge, spreads out costs.
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