Sound Transit 3: Lots Of Bucks, But How Much Bang?

Sound Transit 3: Lots Of Bucks, But How Much Bang?
ST3 will cost another $50 billion and could help push transit's share of commute trips in the region to as high as 1 in 5. But the long timelines and spending level have some concerned. Photo:

Sound Transit will by current estimates spend almost $24 billion on the first two phases of its regional light rail, commuter rail and express bus system. Now it is considering whether to present to voters this fall a third phase that would cost taxpayers another $27 billion, not counting another $23 billion from debt, existing taxes and federal grants.

This will bring daily Sound Transit regional boardings from a recent total of 103,000 in December, 2014 to 525,000 per day in 2040. By then the Puget Sound region will be home to about 5 million people, and the combined transit systems will handle about five percent of all trips.

You might well say “meh,” and tuck your wallet a bit deeper in your pocket. But others will turn to looking at commute trips only, not all trips, to calculate the benefits of the transit investment. That’s because congestion, which according to the Texas Transportation Institute costs the Seattle region $3.3 billion annually, occurs mainly during commute hours. And there the numbers break a bit better. Transit overall could comprise 20 percent of regional commute trips by 2040, with Sound Transit 3 (ST3) a hefty portion of that, at least according to projections.

ST3 as proposed would add 58 miles of light rail and 39 new stations to their existing lines over a 25-year period. Around $27 billion-plus for the project would come from new taxes.

Long Timelines for Sound Transit 3 Light Rail Extensions

ST3 light rail would reach Everett by around 2040, West Seattle in 2033 and Ballard in 2038. Current ST2 work is extending light rail north, south and east to Bellevue and Redmond from Seattle.

Sound Transit operates routes in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, and projects by 2040 it will provide an average of 525,000 daily boardings. The number is used in a recent press release and an agency spokesman confirmed to Lens it actually refers to boardings, not riders or trips. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the transportation planning agency for King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties, projects 3.2 million commute trips each weekday in those jurisdictions in 2040 and 19 million total trips daily.

Transit boardings and commute trips are not quite the same thing. PSRC defines commute trips as portal-to-portal, not counting anything in between. Sound Transit defines boardings as each time someone gets on one of their vehicles, which could encompass multiple boardings on different legs of one trip by one rider. Additionally Sound Transit does not break out commute-related boardings from its total boardings in the way that PSRC distinguishes between commute trips and all trips.

If each of the projected 525,000 daily boardings Sound Transit projects for 2040 represented a commute trip – an inexact and generous assumption – that would represent 16 percent, or almost one sixth of the projected 3.2 million total commute trips.

Overall transit share of commute trips might not be so high in that landmark year though, in part because Sound Transit’s growing number of boardings could in part be drawn from riders who currently use other regional transit systems. In fact, the recent number of combined weekday boardings on the Pierce County, Community (Snohomish County) and Metro (King County) transit systems is 423,389, not too far from Sound Transit’s 2040 projected boardings of 525,000.

However, in line with Sound Transit’s projections, the PSRC does see potential for an even better overall transit share of 2040 commute trips. As Lens recently reported:

Filtering out stay-at-home workers, a 2014 paper from the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) projects that by 2040, solo work commutes in its four-county territory could drop to 64 percent of the mix, with ride-sharing staying steady at 9.4 percent and transit rising as high as 20.4 percent, or 1 in 5 work trips.

ST Has About Four Percent Work-Trip Market Share Now

In December 2014, Sound Transit provided an average of 103,000 daily weekday boardings, or four percent of the estimated 2.5 million average weekday work trips.

Yet non-work trips in Puget Sound are about five times as numerous as commute trips, according to PSRC snapshots like this one from 2006 included in Transportation 2040. As they grow so do greenhouse gas emissions and off-peak congestion, so it makes sense to look at transit’s role here as well. It’s small.

The Puget Sound region had an estimated average of 16.5 million daily weekday trips in 2014, according to PSRC model estimates provided to Lens. Liberally treating each boarding as a trip, the 103,000 daily boardings comprised just .06 percent of all trips made.

As for 2040: PSRC’s Transportation 2040 plan projects more than 19 million total daily trips in the four-county region that includes King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties. If Sound Transit’s 525,000 projected daily boardings for 2040 were each counted as trips, they would comprise 2.7 percent of the total. The full transit share of all trips in the region in 2040 was projected at 5.3 percent in the 2010 Final Environmental Impact Statement for Transportation 2040.

‘Consumes The Oxygen In The Room’

ST3 has met with mixed response. State Sen. Reuven Carlyle told the Seattle Times the proposal “consumes the oxygen in the room, regarding the larger questions of what we want to invest in” because its reliance on property taxes could hurt funding for education, now an especially high priority.

In 1996, voters approved Sound Move, a 10-year regional transportation plan establishing Sound Transit.

The original plan was altered soon after the measure was approved when an audit found costs had exceeded original estimates by $1 billion.

Sound Transit just opened a 3.1 mile light rail connector from Downtown to the University of Washington as part of Sound Move’s Stage I.

Sound Transit 2 was approved by voters in 2008. Sound Transit estimates it will cost $17.8 billion. The first phase cost an estimated $5.9 million, according to an agency spokesman.

As part of ST2, the Central Link Light Rail will be extended from the Husky Stadium to Lynnwood. It will also be extended from Sea-Tac Airport to Federal Way. Additionally, a new light rail route will go from downtown Seattle to Bellevue and Redmond by 2023. Construction work is currently underway on I-90.

Sound Transit is currently holding a public comment period on ST3 that runs until April 29. They are also conducting an online survey. Public meetings on ST3 will start April 19. The agency’s Executive Board is may authorize the ballot measure in June.

Writing and reporting by TJ Martinell and Matt Rosenberg.