Sound Transit's Money Pit: The High Cost of the Sounder North Line

Sound Transit's finances are prompting a lot of head scratching

The autumn nip in the air means one thing—rain is coming. After a hot, dry summer, the shifting forecasts will provoke some grumbles, perhaps nowhere more audible than in Everett, where mudslides canceled 122 trips on Sound Transit’s Sounder north line last winter. For critics of the regional transportation authority (which operates rail and bus service in three central Puget Sound counties), in general, and Sounder, in particular, the seasonal pileups of mud, rocks and debris on the tracks seem like an apt metaphor.

One day, Sounder may be part of an integrated transit system that moves hundreds of thousands of commuters at a reasonable cost and a faster pace than on congested roads. But, so far, the 34-mile Sounder north line, which links Seattle to Everett, is costing much more and being used far less than anybody expected. It was originally proposed as a six-train commuter service, on the existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway tracks, with six stops. But as costs shot up to $368 million from a projected $132 million, the agency cut back to four trains and four stations. About 1,100 riders use the line every weekday, far below the original forecast of 2,400–3,200 riders, for an average cost of $330,000 per rider.

And here’s the kicker: Even after paying all that money up front, it still costs Sound Transit six times more to carry a rider from Everett to Seattle by train than by express bus, and the train doesn’t even stop anywhere in North Seattle, the area most likely to find ridership. Critics say that the line violates state law that allows commuter rail when its “costs per mile, including costs of trackage, equipment, maintenance, operations, and administration, are equal to or less than a bus following a parallel route.”

By contrast, the Sounder south route, from Seattle to Tacoma, cost $55,000 per average weekday rider. That’s relatively cheap. Minneapolis–St. Paul paid about $135,000 per rider for its new commuter line.

To be sure, unforeseen circumstances, including the recent recession, have contributed to reduced ridership and lower revenues, but poor negotiations are also part of the problem. Sound Transit originally estimated it would have to pay $65 million to use BNSF’s right-of-way for the Seattle-Everett route. The agency ended up paying $258 million for those rights.

The agency also may have chosen an unnecessarily expensive technology for its rail system. The Sounder north line uses locomotives and coaches instead of a cheaper alternative called diesel multiple units (DMUs), which are essentially rail coaches with truck engines underneath the floor. Used by at least eight transit systems in the United States and Canada, DMUs are more economical because they consume less fuel and require fewer crew members. Tri-Rail, Miami’s commuter rail provider, which runs both DMU and conventional trains, has found that DMUs travel almost a mile on a gallon of fuel, while locomotives pulling a similar number of seats go less than half a mile per gallon.

In June 2010, as Sound Transit was weighing new equipment purchases, an Ohio DMU manufacturer, US Railcar, offered its product for the north line, whose four locomotives and 12 coaches could then have been moved to the Sounder south line. The agency rejected the approach, choosing instead to acquire three more locomotives for the south line at roughly $5 million each. Sound Transit says the DMUs would be harder to maintain.

The Citizen Oversight Panel (COP), an independent, 15-member panel of citizen volunteers appointed by Sound Transit, cautioned in a 2012 report with regard to the north line that the agency “may have to come to terms with a reality that one of its services is not living up to a reasonable definition of viability.”

But asked if Sound Transit might shut down the costly line, CEO Joni Earl responded, “At this stage, absolutely not.” Earl says the Sounder north line is “a long-term investment” and notes that the citizens of Snohomish County still seem to want the line. Sound Transit says it is boosting marketing efforts and working with transit partners and local jurisdictions to increase ridership and lower the cost per rider.