Sound Transit may adjust service for low ridership North line
EVERETT - A Sound Transit oversight panel is reporting ridership on the Sounder North train isn’t high enough to justify its cost to operate.
The panel wrote in a Sept. 20 report that Sound Transit should add more express buses or commit to increasing train ridership, but the report does not suggest canceling the Everett-to-Seattle Sounder North line.
Sound Transit will release its response to the report next month, agency spokesman Geoff Patrick said. One cost-saving move the agency plans to implement is to cut Sounder North from three train cars to two at the end of the year, Patrick said.
Sound Transit is well aware the North line has been riddled with ridership challenges since it opened in 2003, Patrick said.
When the agency proposed the line to Sound Transit district voters in 1996, it estimated Sounder North would carry 2,400 to 3,200 daily riders by 2010. The train is carrying 1,100 daily commuters right now.
The agency’s five ST Express buses to Seattle, meanwhile, are usually at full capacity and are carrying more than 8,000 riders on weekdays. Two Everett-to-Seattle express routes — 510 and 511 — saw ridership spikes of 21 and 30 percent, respectively, because of the Great Recession, the panel reported.
Sounder North runs weekdays from Everett Station to Seattle with stops in Mukilteo and Edmonds. It makes four south runs in the morning and four north runs in the evening.
Adding more bus service as suggested by the panel isn’t the right long-term solution, Patrick said. The agency predicts population growth will worsen congestion on the Interstate 5 corridor, which will slow bus route times.
Commuters ride the train to avoid congestion and putting more buses on the road won’t rectify that, Patrick said. There’s no extra money for more bus service, anyway.
Sound Transit instead is investing in a separate light rail service, but the service won’t reach Everett until after 2020. It’s scheduled to reach Lynnwood by 2023. Voters opted to build new tracks for that service under a 2008 bond package called ST2.
If Sound Transit’s money wasn’t tied up in light rail, it would have money for more buses, Patrick said.
The panel suggested offering reduced fares, fewer train trips and targeted marketing to increase Sounder North ridership, in addition to adding a station in north Seattle.
The panel acknowledges there’s no money for new stations. Sound Transit may have to “decide between major new investments or significant service reductions,” it wrote.
Issues affecting ridership include Sounder schedules not meshing with ferry times in Edmonds and Mukilteo, mudslides creating service outages and more riders opting to drive or take the bus. At the train stations in Mukilteo and Edmonds, parking is incredibly tight. Some of these issues have been known for years, Patrick said.
Some of the challenges with Sounder North’s are not Sound Transit’s fault.
The agency originally intended Sounder North to have six daily trips and go to more stops around north Seattle that were never built along the line.
The agency spent $258 million up front to have lifetime use of Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s tracks, but when the service started, Burlington told the agency it couldn’t run a full schedule on its single line of track, Patrick said.
Burlington told the agency a full north-south commuter line would require a second track line to let other trains pass, and the railroad said this would have to come out of Sound Transit’s pocket, Patrick said.
During negotiations in the early 2000s, the transit board was leery of the deal, Patrick said, but decided to go through with it.
That costly upfront investment is one reason “Sound Transit wants to hunker down” and get more riders, Patrick said.
The mayors of Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds see Sounder North as an important route. In a joint letter from April, the mayors wrote they “strongly disagree” with suggestions from opponents to eliminate Sounder North with more bus service.
Everett Station has no more room for more buses, and Mukilteo and Edmonds don’t have enough space for buses to replace Sounder’s capacity, the mayors wrote.
Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, the vice chair for Sound Transit’s board, said he would consider adding more buses in the short term.
“I believe over the long-term we’ll see higher numbers, but in the meantime, we need to consider whether there are better service options like increased bus service that make it more convenient for commuters and look to increase our special Sounder runs, such as to Seahawks and Sounders games,” Reardon said. “These have been extremely popular and can help us offset short-term losses on this route.”
Sounder South service from Seattle to Lakewood south of Tacoma generates 9,000 riders a day. The south line draws from east and west King and Pierce counties while the north line hugs the coast, Patrick said.
“I think it’s safe to say while we have a good track record with ridership estimates, this one (Sounder North) we were off,” Patrick said.
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