November 2009

Light Rail Openings Boon to Ridership, Growth

by Nicole Schlosser, Associate Editor

In recent months, light rail has experienced considerable success, with plenty of local businesses and community partners on board. Free rides and entertainment during opening weekends drew ample crowds. These rail openings also expanded opportunities for development and community beautification, as evidenced in all three cities.

Seattle: Geographic flexibility

In July, Seattle opened its first light rail line, the Central Link, run by Sound Transit. The 35 low-floor railcars, manufactured by Osaka, Japan-based Kinkisharyo/Mitsui, have 200 passenger capacity with 74 seats; are 95 feet long; and weigh about 105,000 pounds. All the cars can be operated in either direction, with cabs on both ends.

The total project cost was $2.4 billion.

The line covers 14 miles and has 12 stations. Over opening weekend, 92,000 free rides were given.

The numbers remained high, with August ridership hitting nearly 15,000. Joni Earl, CEO, Sound Transit, says that the agency's target for ridership by the end of the year is 20,000 to 21,000 a day. "It's currently in the 15,000 to 16,000 a day range. Weekends, depending on events, it's even higher than that," she adds. "We will open the station at the airport in December, which is the next piece of the extension."

Linda Robson, spokesperson, Sound Transit, says the agency hired an event planner to come up with a design for each station, essentially planning 12 different events for the rollout.

"We came up with entertainment, activities and methods for crowd control at each of the stations to make sure that everyone had an enjoyable and safe ride," says Robson. The agency was expecting large crowds and knew a number of the stations would be overwhelmed if they were to simply open the system without any crowd control measures. They used different ways to meter out how many people were boarding to ensure trains and platforms weren't overloading, that people stayed safe and there were no conflicts with any of the vehicle traffic movement.

Part of the entertainment included a kids' magic and mime show, and all artists were local to the Puget Sound area. Additionally, each participating business came up with special promotions. In particular, the Columbia City Business Association came up with its own Link Light Rail celebration promotions. Many restaurants offered discounted or free items, and many retail stores offered discounts to customers who showed their ORCA smart card, the fare card used for the light rail and all other Seattle transit systems. "That was something that the business association took on as its own. They wanted to be a part of the community celebration for the opening," Robson says.

Sound Transit also performed extensive community outreach, particularly in the Rainier Valley area, where the system was designed to be at-grade. The entire roadway was rebuilt, with sidewalks widened, and new signaling added from curb to curb to accommodate the light rail system.

She adds that the agency performed a safety campaign shortly before opening. When it began train-testing in the Rainier Valley, Sound Transit distributed pamphlets, brochures and information and had games geared for youth. The majority of it was also translated into approximately 11 different languages to reach as many people as possible in a very culturally diverse community.

Before the Central Link Light Rail opened, Seattle already had commuter rail and an express bus system similar to bus rapid transit (BRT). Earl explains that a bill with light rail and express bus was approved by the voters in 1996. The funding mechanism for the Central Link is a 0.4 percent sales tax, and a 0.3 percent motor vehicle excise tax, which was approved that year to build a light rail system along with a number of other transit improvements including for express bus and commuter rail. "Our big marquee item from that ballot that was approved in 1996 was the light rail system in Seattle," adds Robson.

The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, now Sound Transit, looked at corridors and growth management plans in the region and came up with the technology that was best in each corridor.

"Light rail in Seattle, in particular from downtown to the airport, that was looked at for a long time in terms of how to deal with our geography," says Earl. "We only have a few through streets to the heart of the city and, light rail, as I understand it, was selected because it's the most flexible and limited right-of-way."

One of the reasons for light rail technology's popularity is its flexibility. "Sound Transit chose a light rail technology, as opposed to heavy rail technology with a third rail...light rail is, for us, more flexible, as we tried to deal with the big variations in topography in the Seattle area," says Robson. "The 14 miles, for just this central link portion before we even get into any of the extensions, it's almost one-third elevated, one-third at-grade, and maybe a little less than a third that's tunnel."

Adds Earl: "Plus, it's a very green technology, because you're not burning any CO2 emissions to power it. The vast majority of our electricity is hydroelectric so it's very inexpensive, with essentially zero emissions."

Shortly before the Central Link opened, the ORCA smart card became available to riders, enabling them to use the same fare card on all seven transit systems in the Seattle area. "The combination has laid out a pretty positive reaction to light rail. Overall, it's performing well, and we're very pleased so far," Earl says.

All along, partnership with other transit agencies in the region has been critical to the success of the light rail plans. The agency worked very closely with King County Metro Transit on changes that were made to their operations to compliment the light rail system. They have agreed upon system service changes that are done three times each year, in February, June and September. All agency bus route changes are coordinated to start on the same day, which makes using two different systems - such as King County Metro and the new light rail system - easier for customers. The bus routes now also compliment and feed into the light rail system, so that service isn't duplicated. "Not only is it the smart thing to do, but at Sound Transit we think it's central to our mission," Robson notes. "In order to be good stewards of scarce tax-payer resources, we need to make sure that we're not duplicating efforts and that [what] we do compliments each others' efforts, so that tax-payers are getting the best bang for their buck."

Looking to the future, Sound Transit has another two miles for Airport Link coming in December, and the University Link extension is 3.15 miles. Construction has begun, and the line is expected to open in 2016. "Last November, voters in this region said, 'yes, we want more and we are willing to approve a $17.8 billion expansion of the regional transit system.' The 15-year program includes some of the express bus and commuter rail expansion, but mostly the bulk of it is going to 36 new miles of light rail at a total of 55 miles," says Robson.


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