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Tuesday, February 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Grandiose rail schemes do little to reduce congestion

Special to The Times

If a costly public project fails to meet its goals, and has no hope of meeting them, taxpayers should expect that the project will be eliminated or redesigned.

But Sound Transit operates from a different rule book. If initial goals are not met, the board sets new goals at a fraction of the level once promised. Current performance then is compared with revised goals set so low that nearly any improvement is cause for celebration.

In May 1996, for example, Sound Transit published a slick brochure telling voters that the Everett-to-Seattle commuter train would cost $89 million and serve from 600,000 to 800,000 riders annually by 2010. Elsewhere it indicated that it would serve 357,000 riders in 2002, the first year of service.

This month, a Sound Transit news release admitted that ridership was 97,000 in 2004, between one-third and one-fourth the patronage that had been promised in 2002. Using the lower figure as a base, Sound Transit claimed that 2005 ridership was 50,000 higher, while, as a matter of record, it was scarcely one-fourth the level originally promised.

The financial projection was equally deceptive. Completion of the Sounder rail line between Everett and Seattle will cost $385 million, four times the 1996 estimate.

But this is only part of the sad story.

At present, the taxpayer subsidy for each round trip on the Everett-to-Seattle rail commuter line is about $547! Not included is the $6 fare ($3 each way). The $547 subsidy is 32 times more than the round-trip taxpayer subsidy for Sound Transit's regional express buses.

Assuming that ridership grows according to Sound Transit's latest predictions, the average daily subsidy will drop to $135 per round-trip passenger during the next 25 years. That sum includes amortizing the capital cost in accordance with Federal Transit Administration's methodology, plus operating costs estimated by Sound Transit. A person living in Everett and working five days per week in Seattle will cost taxpayers $675 per week, for a total of $33,000 per year. It would be cheaper to give commuters a new car every Christmas.

In an urban area that absorbs about 11 million daily trips — and growing higher each year — the impact on congestion will be infinitesimal and indiscernible. To suggest that a tiny number of commuter-rail passengers will make a difference is absurd.

Sound Transit downplays the current express-bus service between Everett and Seattle. These buses make 30 daily round trips, in contrast to the two train trips. They're just as fast, cheaper to operate, and stop at numerous downtown Seattle locations.

The Everett-to-Seattle component of Sounder represents only about 1/25th of Sound Transit's long-term rail madness. This agency is disrupting life in downtown Seattle by closing and reconfiguring the bus tunnel. It's boring two huge tubes under Beacon Hill for a train station that needs a deep-in-the-earth elevator to reach it. Streets are being torn up, and hundreds of homes and businesses are being destroyed between the downtown Convention Center and Sea-Tac Airport in order to build the 15.6-mile, $2.7 billion light-rail system.

In the planning stage is a $1.5 billion tunnel to connect downtown Seattle with Husky Stadium, a project intended to be the first stage to extend light rail to Northgate. Sound Transit plans to float more bonds and secure more federal money for this two-stop segment, in the apparent belief that voters will approve more billions rather than see a costly project half finished. Most of Phase II, if approved, would be to complete the northern part of Phase I, which was put on hold in 2001 because costs exceeded tax revenues.

Because so much money is being lavished on grandiose rail schemes that do little to reduce traffic congestion, it is increasingly difficult to take sensible steps to improve transit mobility. Being ignored or underfunded are bus routes to new suburbs, installation of real-time traffic information systems, extension of HOV lanes, implementation of better parking policies, use of more van and car pools, upgraded traffic signal synchronization, repair or replacement of the Highway 520 bridge, road improvements at various "pinch-points," and other cost-effective projects.

To a foreign observer, Sound Transit would be the subject of an amusing comedy. To Puget Sound taxpayers, it is an unfolding tragedy.

Thomas Coad, a Seattle resident, has been involved in transit issues for the past 10 years, including opposition to the Regional Transit Authority's rail proposal in 1995. He is a former newspaper owner and publisher and has served as president of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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