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Wednesday, April 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
The reason we should care about Sounder's high cost

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On April 1, The Seattle Times reported that Sounder north, Sound Transit's train that runs between Seattle, Edmonds and Everett, may be the most expensive commuter-rail project per rider in the United States. At its current ridership, Sounder north's operating cost is estimated at $38.54 per ride.

That's about double the operating cost per rider of Sounder south, the train between Seattle and Tacoma, and 10 times the operating cost per rider of a King County Metro bus.

And that isn't the half of it. The measurement is only of operating cost, which is the cost to run a thing that already exists. The cost of acquiring the thing is the capital cost. In Sounder north's case, capital cost includes the new train station at Everett, the cost of buying the trains and the (very expensive) right to use the tracks.

You wouldn't think restarting passenger service between Seattle, Edmonds and Everett would cost all that much. The Great Northern operated passenger trains between Seattle, Edmonds and Everett for decades. I rode them in the 1960s. The fare to Edmonds, if I remember correctly, was 63 cents. The train took nearly an hour. It was slower than the bus, and hardly anyone rode it. It was a service dying for lack of demand.

To restart this service required permission of the Great Northern's successor, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. They demanded more than a quarter-billion dollars for that permission, and Sound Transit agreed to pay it. And there were the trains, stations and all that. In total, for Sounder north, capital costs through 2009 are estimated at $393 million.

That is nearly the cost of one Mariner stadium.

So far, Sounder north is carrying about 160 people to work every weekday. And because it has agreed to spend one Mariner stadium worth of capital to carry people who today could be carried in three buses, Sounder north's cost per passenger is almost too large to be printed in a family newspaper.

The transit industry does not calculate the capital cost per rider. But it puts out enough numbers for critics to calculate it, and they have. Seattle financial consultant Tom Heller calculates that if you spread out the capital cost (land and roadbed, 100 years; cost of capital, 7 percent) and the train carries as many riders as Sound Transit forecasted, the operating and capital cost, this year, is on the order of $179 per ride. If ridership falls 40 percent short (and on Sounder north it is worse than that), the cost rises to $298.

That's per ride. The typical patron rides it twice a day.

Sound Transit says it's not fair to judge the service after only three months. When it adds a second train — and it has purchased the right to run four — the service will be more convenient. More people will ride it and the cost per rider will fall. Probably so. By Heller's numbers, by 2010, the cost per rider falls to one-third of today's figure. Still, the numbers are very high.

Sound Transit's people also say it's also not fair to use a 7 percent cost of capital, because it doesn't plan to pay interest for 100 years. In their reckoning, all of Heller's numbers should come down considerably. Still, they admit that the current cost per rider is high.

The amazing thing is that so many people won't care, one way or the other. They are for rail transit no matter what it costs. Probably, they will never ride it. Maybe they think lots of other people will ride it, though many don't even think that.

They don't worry about rail transit making sense economically because they don't hold it to a standard of economics. They hold it to a standard of belief. They support rail transit because it expunges their guilt for driving cars.

There is another reason to care about what Sounder costs. Sounder, both north and south, is the first of Sound Transit's rail projects to open for business. This is the first time the public can compare forecasts with reality. How much does the train really cost? How many people actually ride it? We should care about Sounder because it is a test run for the big enchilada, Link Light Rail.

Bruce Ramsey's e-mail address is

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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