Buses a better deal than Sounder trains, panel says

MUKILTEO — Sounder North commuter rail between Everett and Seattle needs to pick up its ridership or Sound Transit should consider cutting back the service and moving the resources into more buses, a citizen group has recommended.

While Sound Transit has no current plans to discontinue running any of the four round-trip weekday trains, its ridership lags far behind both that of express buses from Snohomish County to Seattle and the Sounder line that runs between Seattle and Tacoma.

The report was developed over the spring and summer by the Citizen Oversight Panel, a 12-member group that provides input to Sound Transit, with help from the agency’s staff.

The report specifically says the panel is not advocating discontinuing Sounder North. The trains provide a valuable alternative, according to the report.

“However, we believe that, in the long term, the taxpayers and transit users of Snohomish County will not be well served if the high-cost Sounder North line continues to run well below capacity while the much lower-cost ST Express bus routes run overloaded with passengers standing in the aisles,” the report said.

It cost $32.38 per boarding to operate Sounder North in 2011, compared to $10.19 for Sounder South, according to the report. The cost for the entire system, buses included, was $12.71.

Sound Transit is under no obligation to act on the report, dated Sept. 20, but it’s been presented to the Sound Transit board of directors for their review, spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.

“We do need to embark on a rigorous action plan for how we develop ridership on the Sounder North line,” she said.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, chairwoman of the board, will provide a response to the report by the end of this month, Reason said.

Even before the report, the agency was planning to take two to four cars from the trains that serve Snohomish County and move them to the Sounder South line by the end of 2013, Reason said.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson, Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine and Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling signed a letter to Sound Transit in April supporting Sounder service. Earling is a member of the Sound Transit board.

“Sound Transit made commitments to the voters in Sound Move (in 1996) and ST2 (in 2008) to provide the citizens of Snohomish County with commuter rail service,” the letter said.

When the first Sound Transit sales tax measure was approved by voters in 1996, daily ridership for Sounder North was projected at 2,400 to 3,200 per day by 2010, the report said. Since beginning in December 2003, its high has been 1,200 boardings per day in June 2008; the low, about 700 in December 2010.

Ridership on the south line varies between 8,500 and 10,000 boardings per day, Reason said.

The 10-page report lists several difficulties for Sounder North in comparison to the south line. One of the big ones is also Sounder North’s aesthetic asset — its route along the water.

While nice to look at, Possession Sound and Puget Sound restrict room to build more tracks to make for easier coordination between Sounder and freight trains operated by BNSF Railroad, which owns the rail lines. This causes the number of trains each way to be limited to four per day, with a few runs added on weekends for special events.

Sound Transit paid BNSF $258 million for the right to use the line in perpetuity.

The water also reduces the population from which the train can draw, essentially cutting it in half compared to the south line, which runs mostly east of I-5.

That line runs from Tacoma through the thick swath of population in the Kent Valley, Renton and south Seattle. The trains have seven passenger cars and seven stops. Sounder North has three passenger cars and three stops — Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds.

On the other side of the Sounder North tracks in many locations are steep slopes, which sometimes drop clumps of mud onto the tracks when it rains, closing the line.

When this occurs, BNSF requires the tracks to be closed for 48 hours while the slides are cleared. While Sound Transit adds bus service to fill in the gap for commuters, riders are forced out of their routine for at least two days.

This happened a record 70 times in the rainy winter of 2010-11, by far the most of any year since the service began.

The railroad recently received a $16 million federal grant to address mudslides on tracks statewide. The Seattle-Edmonds corridor is one of the more problematic stretches for mudslides, according to BNSF.

Also, according to the original Sounder plan, stations could be added in Richmond Beach and north Seattle when funding became available. That has not happened.

The biggest constraint in Edmonds and Mukilteo, many say, is a lack of parking.

Edmonds has 156 stalls and Mukilteo 63. The lots are full or very close to it every day, riders say.

“I just think if they got more parking they’d get more passengers,” said Andrew Garcia of Mukilteo, who rides Sounder every day from Mukilteo to work in Seattle.

The Edmonds lot is often full by the time the third of four trains leaves in the morning, Earling said — leaving anyone who wants to park and catch the fourth train out of luck.

“We get almost daily complaints about the lack of parking on site,” he said. “It’s understandable ridership is not what it should be.”

Earling said he is pursuing arrangements with nearby property owners — “aggressively” — for more Sounder parking.

In Mukilteo, the Sounder platform is located next to the site where the state plans to build a new ferry terminal, and additional parking could come along with that project. This isn’t expected to be done until 2017 at the earliest, however.

In Everett, parking is not a problem — while the 975 stalls at Everett Station are split between buses and trains, the 400-stall lot east of the train tracks is rarely full, Mayor Stephanson said.

An average of 240 people board Sounder in Everett in the morning, 160 in Mukilteo and 210 in Edmonds, according to Sound Transit’s most recent figures. In the evening, 590 people board Sounder northbound from Seattle.

Cutting down on the mudslides and adding stops in north Seattle could help ridership in Everett and throughout the line, Stephanson said.

The report suggests shooting for the original target of 2,400 boardings per day — roughly double the current total — by 2020 and to meet intermediate benchmarks before then.

If this service were to be cut, reducing one train each way per day would save $1 million per year, according to the report. This could result in 8,770 more hours of express bus service, or 10 to 12 more daily trips.

Removing two to four cars would save $184,000 per year, translating to 1,600 hours of bus service or one to two new bus trips.

Officials caution, however, that ridership wouldn’t necessarily translate to the buses.

A different set of people ride trains, with many living well west of I-5, and they wouldn’t necessarily want to take a bus or drive to a park-and-ride, Reason said.

Carl and Cindy Clark of Mukilteo had been riding the bus to their jobs with law firms downtown but recently switched to Sounder.

“We like it a lot better,” Cindy Clark said. “It’s dependable.”

The Clarks added that more parking in Mukilteo would help. They wouldn’t want to see the service cut. Neither would Garcia.

“I don’t think very highly of that,” he said.

Ridership actually has rebounded this year, Reason said, with a 14 percent increase in the spring over the same period last year and a 25 percent increase in August.

Stephanson and Earling both said they share the concern about the cost of the system, but said all efforts should be made to increase ridership before considering any further cuts.

“This is an integral part of meeting the need here,” Stephanson said, noting that light rail is not scheduled to reach Lynnwood until 2023 and Everett at some point beyond then, if ever.

“All the more reason for us to find a solution to this problem,” he said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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