Puget Sound Regional Council (MPO) Data Shows
Virtually No Benefit from Seattle Light Rail

From: Emory Bundy

Subject: RE: The Benefits of Sound Transit

Date: Friday, 10 November, 2000 16:59

I would like to weigh in on yet another way of making the benefit calculation for Sound Transit's rail projects.

A. Sound Transit's plan wastes money and fails to address the problems the region faces.

In 1996 there were 8,900,000 daily trips in this Sound Transit area. Data is from Puget Sound Regional Council. In 2010 it is predicted there will be 11,800,000 daily trips.

So the difference between 1996, the year we voted for RTA, and 2010, when both rail lines are supposed to be completed, fully operating, and up to speed, is 2,900,000 additional daily trips.

How many of the 2,900,000 new daily trips will Link light rail plus Sounder commuter rail serve?

32,000 for Link and 5,000 for Sounder, IF Sound Transit's aspirations are fully met. Those are the "new riders"--daily trips by people not served by transit today.

So, 37,000 of the 2,900,000 new trips will be served by Link plus Sounder if, perchance, Sound Transit performs as well as it claims it will. That equals 1.1 percent of the ADDITIONAL trips added in our region between 1996 and 2010. So we'll have 90 times more daily new trips NOT served by Link and Sounder, between 1996 and 2010, than those served. In short, as resources are squandered, billions in long-term debt taken on, and markedly higher operating and maintenance costs are imposed, our congestion and mobility situation will be deteriorating at an alarming rate.

Or stated yet another way, Link plus Sounder will cost on the order of $4 billion. If we entrusted 90 times that sum to Sound Transit, and it continued to spend at its hoped-for level of efficiency, by 2010 our congestion would be no worse--and no better--than it is today. For $270 billion!

The moral of the story is, spending such huge sums of money for such pitiful benefits will doom this region to profoundly worse travel and congestion conditions, as we get poorer. And it will deprive us, for decades into the future, of resources that could be productively applied.

B. A better way.

This is what Don Shakow, Dick Nelson, Ed Sheets, Dick Watson, Ralph Cavanagh, Randy Pozdena, Daniel Malarkey, Steve Fitzroy, and other expert, and public-spirited individuals have been trying to urge on the transportation planners, the political leadership, the media, and civic associations (most of all those in the environmental community) for the past decade: A planning regimen, drawn from the lessons of least-cost planning so successfully applied in the electricity sector, in which there is a diligent effort to obtain the greatest value for the investment, with environmental costs as part of the equation.

This kind of thoughtful and responsible initiative has been resisted by the rail-building aficionados. They have a romantic attachment to urban rail projects, and/or a profound self-interest, notwithstanding that they are promoting the most wasteful of all options, given today's rail technology, and the attributes of the typical North American city. There are, of course, beneficiaries; they form the backbone of the promotional support system: With WPPSS, the citizens and taxpayers took a terrible bath, for which we're still paying--but someone got all those billions, others had the rewarding experience of dolling out the money, and for others it was modestly reflected in a stream of campaign contributions and other favors.

Most of us think that Boston's Big Dig is a disaster, having gone from $2.5 billion to $15.5 billion, and counting. But, again, that's from a citizen, taxpayer and community perspective: If you are the senior staff of the project, the myriad vendors, or the political board members, controlling and dispensing and receiving those immense sums brings rich rewards. For them, the Big Dig is succeeding beyond their dreams and aspirations: a mere $2.5 billion project has blossomed many times over. That's the future Sound Transit, its vendors, and political supporters look forward to. The putative "very conservative," $1.67 billion cost of Link light rail will be but the down payment. Already it's clear that Link will surpass $1 billion in overruns--and once the digging starts the expensive surprises will accelerate.

C. Chuck Collins' plan offers a promising beginning.

The bus/vanpool alternative that Chuck Collins and his crew have put together focuses on three issues: Number of additional people served, cost-per-new-rider, and risk. That's the kind of hard-headed planning approach we desperately need, and so far have lacked.

Collins, of course, is exceedingly well-informed about least-cost planning, having been a charter member of the Northwest Power Planning Council, when those concepts were first applied to regional energy planning. For purposes of simplicity, I assume, he's elected to offer a robust transit alternative, without the least-cost planning verbiage. But it draws on those concepts and his experiences, both as head of Metro Transit and as a member of NPPC.

His alternative (which Seattle Times editor Mindy Cameron refers to, encouragingly, as Plan B) promises six-times more "new riders" as Link rail, at approximately one-sixth the cost per new rider. It will accomplish its goals more swiftly, and do so with minimal risk. It will not entail the huge, long-term debt burdens. Sound Transit's Link alternative will do one-sixth as much, more slowly, and carries with it a prodigious risk, including cost overruns and billions in long-term debt. In contrast, Collins' plan is conservative--it is very likely its performance will exceed predictions--while, as we are learning, Sound Transit has systematically understated costs and exaggerated benefits.

If we have the good sense to abandon hopelessly expensive and unproductive rail schemes, and go with Plan B, we'll have made a major step forward. But the challenge is immense, and much more will need to be done. By beginning to shift toward the sound criteria that the Collins team recommends, other vistas of opportunity will emerge, in fields as diverse as more aggressive investments in carpooling, more U-Pass-type innovations, renewed emphasis on employer-based trip demand reductions, telecommuting, new transit technologies, bicycles, expanded HOV lane systems, congestion pricing, and more efficient utilization of the prodigious investments we've already made in roads, highways, and transit operations.

Given the challenges we're facing, the best is demanded of us. Sound Transit represents the worst.

(c) 2000 www.publicpurpose.com --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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