Sound Start to Seattle’s Commuter Rail System

Posted on March 1, 2001 by Louis Hale, freelancer

“Commuter rail has incredible potential in this region for providing a fast, reliable commuting alternative to driving throughout the north-south I-5 corridor,” says Paul Price, director of Sounder Commuter Rail, the most current development of Sound Transit in Seattle. Currently, commuter rail is operating two inbound and two outbound trains daily between Tacoma and Seattle. In less than six months of operation, and with some stations sill under construction, the system is already carrying up to 1,800 trips a day. “As our service and facilities expand, we expect to see ridership grow substantially,” Price says. Although commuter rail is the most current project implemented at Sound Transit, it is only part of the whole. And the whole, says Joni Earl, Sound Transit’s acting executive director, “is a tremendous undertaking, and one that is critical to addressing our region’s growing transportation problems. “Sound Transit is unique. Typically, new transit services are developed by an agency that is already established in the community,” she says. “Sound Transit is not only a new agency, but it is implementing three distinct lines of service— light rail, commuter rail and express bus services—simultaneously.” Earl speaks to the pressing need for additional transportation capacity in the central Puget Sound region when she says, “During the mid-1990s, this region was growing at a rate of 100 people per day—more than 36,000 people annually. That’s the equivalent of the population of a small city. While growth has slowed, we’re still forecasting that there will be another million people living in the region by the year 2020. We need to act now to provide the transportation alternatives to keep our region moving.” In contrast to the Sounder’s success, the Link light rail project is encountering some political opposition as costs mounted due to revised estimates during the project’s design and engineering phase. In addition, local funding has become less certain thanks to a key revenue source that disappeared in a voter referendum two autumns ago. Part of the Sounder’s success has to be attributed to the project’s getting into revenue service quickly. That was enabled by contracting with an outside operator, Amtrak Commuter Services, and by using existing freight right-of-way. A history of challenge Sound Transit has had a history of tremendous challenges, and tremendous setbacks, from the very start. In order to understand where it is today, and how it expects to implement its vision for the future, a bit of history is helpful. This background was provided by Denny Fleenor, a spokesman for Sound Transit who has been with the agency since 1992 and has a good perspective on where it came from, and where it’s going. The area has been looking at rail transit since the 1960s. In 1968, a series of bond issues were put forward, which would have included a $1.2 billion rail system for King County. Eighty percent of it would have been federally funded. It got more than 50% of the popular vote, but because it involved a property tax bond issue, it required 60% of the popular vote by state law. The bid for the system failed. In 1970, it was taken back to the ballot in what is since called “the Boeing bust,” a major downturn in the local economy. That too failed. In 1972, another vote was taken to establish an all county bus system, with the burden falling to Seattle’s Metro Transit. Planners continued to look at rail as a future option through the ’70s and ’80s, and many studies were done. In 1988, an advisory ballot in King County simply asked if planning should go forward to develop rail transit, with some service by 2000. That started the process leading to the present plan. In 1991, the state legislature said, in effect, that if a transit system was developed, it should be regional and include not only King County, but Snohomish County to the north and Pierce County to the south. The bus agencies in the three counties began working together toward that goal. That led to the Group Regional Policy Committee, a board of elected officials from the three counties. They put forward a long-range plan that involved light rail, commuter rail and more bus service. But, says Fleenor, “With a price tag of about $13 billion it was, politically, dead on arrival.” The group did provided a long-range blueprint. When that group was dissolved in 1993, the councils from the three counties voted to form the regional transit authority that the state legislature authorized. In 1995, that body came up with a more modest plan. It proposed a six point, $7 billion plan that included extensive light rail service from Tacoma to Seattle and east to Bellevue and to the Microsoft campus, plus a 30 mile commuter rail line between Tacoma and Seattle. It also included express bus service. In March 1995 that proposal received 47% of the vote, not a clear majority, and was defeated. “We went back to the drawing boards and, with a lot of community involvement, essentially asked, ‘What will you support?’” says Fleenor. In November 1996, the voters were presented with a scaled down plan that included 21 miles of light rail from SeaTac Airport to the university district; 82 miles of commuter rail from Lakewood, south of Tacoma and running up to Everett, using passenger trains on existing tracks; and a plan for 18 limited stop express routes, mainly for passengers traveling across county lines. That package proposed the payment for the project come from a 4/10% increase in sales tax and 3/10% increase in motor vehicle tax. In 1996, the plan was approved with a majority vote of 57%. In early 1997, Sound Transit was formed as the agency to implement the plan. In September 1999, express bus service started with nine limited stop express routes. Currently, there are 14 of those routes performing about 14,000 trips per day. By the end of 2002, all 18 routes are expected to be in place. Commuter rail begins On Sept. 18, 2000, Sound Transit started its commuter rail service with two morning trains from Tacoma to Seattle and two return trips in the evening. In the past few weeks, two more stations were opened with another scheduled for March, which will bring the total to seven. The stations are carrying about 1,800 boardings per day. “By the end of the year we hope to have three trains in the morning and three trips home,” says Fleenor, adding that by the end of 2002 the intent is to extend the lines south to Lakewood and north to Everett. “Ultimately, there will be 18 trains per day with service going in both directions. Currently, it simply covers peak times.” The commuter rail uses diesel passenger trains on the existing Burlington North and Santa Fe freight tracks. What is involved in the project are track improvements to enable more traffic, as well as improved signals and communications which will also benefit freight traffic. Where commuter rail represents long-range travel using an existing infrastructure, the light rail system, designed for shorter stops, represents all new construction. With quieter and smoother rides, those trains are powered by electricity. The light rail system moved through a lot of preliminary design work. In January, a $500 million federal funding agreement was secured from the Federal Transit Administration. Already in 2000, a segment of four and a half miles of the 21-mile light rail system from downtown Seattle to the university district was targeted for construction. However, last July, when the agency requested proposals for the further design and construction of the tunnel, it was substantially more than—between $200 million and $300 million—cost estimates. “This triggered the managers to look at all of the costs associated with light rail, and it was determined that it would cost $1 billion more to complete it than was originally estimated,” Fleenor says. Again, it was back to the drawing boards. With a revised financing plan, based on the expectation of good revenues coming in from an improved economy, it was determined that the costs could be absorbed without adding new taxes. But construction schedules had to be revised. Originally, the target was the end of 2006. That’s been changed to 2009. The overall result is a considerable amount of controversy, including Bob White’s resignation as executive director. “We are in the process of doing a six month evaluation of the light rail program to determine if we can speed up construction, reduce costs and basically restore public confidence,” Fleenor says. “We had hoped to begin construction this spring, but now we’re projecting June 2002. Again, we have a lot of work to do to convince both the public and Congress that we have a more realistic budget and can stick to it and set things right.” Sound Transit’s ultimate goal is to make public transportation easy for the passenger. But the journey there, for Sound Transit, will not have been an easy one. ***************************************** Bombardier delivers commuter rail cars All of the commuter rail cars for Sound Transit are provided by Bombardier Transportation. Bombardier was chosen for its bi-level construction, which adds a second floor for customer seating and puts 70% more people in the same length vehicle as can fit in a single level vehicle. That also allows for shorter platforms to handle larger numbers of people. The cars can seat up to 164 passengers. Gary Hallman, director of sales at Bombardier, says that there is a trend toward those bi-level cars. “Every commuter rail service that has started in the sunbelt areas of the southern and western United States growth areas has, with one exception over the past 20 years, chosen bi-level cars—and that one exception has recently switched.” Hallman says the cars are in a continual state of evolution and improvement in terms of technology, upgrades to meet regulatory standards and customization enhancements. “Users have the ability to customize the appearance of the car,” Hallman says. “Perhaps the most creative example is the exterior paint scheme by Sound Transit which resembles waves in the water, which blends in well as it runs along the shores of Puget Sound.” Other enhancements that can be added, Hallman says, include a power hookup for laptop computers, tables for passengers to place their computers on and do office work on, plus coffee and food service.

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