It's not 'all aboard' for Sounder

Sound Transit is keeping its promise to deliver Sounder trains to Everett, but at a cost to local taxpayers that's more than double what the agency advertised when voters approved the regional transit plan seven years ago.

In the preliminary agreement signed May 28, the agency must spend $250 million on track improvements so that passenger trains won't reduce future freight movement in the 35-mile corridor.

In return, Sounder trains will get access to the tracks until the year 2100 — a full century of service for our children and grandchildren, the transit agency's leaders say.

Is this a good deal?

"What I hear people say is, 'Commuter rail's finally coming to Snohomish County,' " said Dave Earling, an Edmonds city councilman on the Sound Transit governing board. "That is what people focus on when I talk to them. They're just ecstatic we're finally going to get this mode of transportation."

The $250 million track agreement, signed with railroad owner Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), is the largest share of an overall cost of roughly $380 million in year-of-expenditure dollars to cover tracks, trains, design and operations through 2010.

Federal contributions make up $77 million of that amount and the state would pay an additional $15 million, leaving the local share at $288 million — or $715 per resident of urban Snohomish County, which pays almost all of the tax.

Seven years ago, the advertised price in the 10-year Sound Move plan was $132 million (or $156 million in year-of-expenditure dollars), of which $28 million would be federal funds, for a local share of $104 million. Sound Transit expected other grants that never materialized, in part because of the state's tax-cutting Initiative 695. Until last month, the overall Sounder-to-Everett program was estimated at around $226 million.

Two trips cut

While taxpayers are taking on a larger burden, the promised six round trips in the Sound Move plan are being cut to four per day, based on the preliminary agreement with BNSF.

"Money is no object, apparently, to this agency, and they expect citizens to settle for very little," says Maggie Fimia of the opposition group Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives (CETA), which favors bus rapid transit.

Sound Transit's finance director, Hugh Simpson, said the long-term pact is as attractive to the public as today's low-interest mortgages are to homeowners. If the tracks wear out someday or a mudslide damages the railbed, transit taxpayers are off the hook, he said. "We don't have to deal with inflation, either."

State Transportation Commission Chairman Aubrey Davis says the price is "staggering" but he can accept it.

"I'm in a mode where we ought to go with whatever we can go with," he said. "It's so hard to get anything done, that if anything works, let's do it."

Filling a mile of beach

It sounds simple — and relatively inexpensive — to just roll transit trains onto existing tracks as other cities have done. But BNSF owns the tracks and is making Sound Transit pay for building another track along those stretches that now have only one line. The expansions require filling a mile of beach in Mukilteo and a near-shore segment in Woodway.

Some salmon runs are under endangered-species protection, which led to new environmental costs.

"The agency just didn't realize the full extent of the improvements necessary," said Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, a Sound Transit board member, who said early estimates were based on engineering studies at the time. Sound Transit was also in a weakened bargaining position because it desperately wanted an asset held by one private owner.

The track deal turned out more expensive than budgeted even a few months ago, when the agency allocated $155 million for it.

However, Rick Desimone, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., says BNSF did give ground in negotiations. Initially, "they wanted a third rail out of all this," he said. A railroad spokesman said the company would not comment until the contract is signed.

Even before the price went up, the agency expected to max out its Snohomish County funds through 2009, so the Sounder deal may require issuing up to $100 million in bond debt. Sound Transit already intends to prolong the current tax rates indefinitely, or seek a voter-approved increase for a second round of projects.

Ridership predictions

With a lease as long as this one — 97 years — it's virtually impossible to accurately predict how many people will use the trains, though Sound Transit makes the point that ridership will likely grow.

Immediately after the May 28 announcement, Sound Transit predicted that by 2010 there would be 600,000 annual boardings, or 2,350 daily one-way trips on the Everett-Seattle segment. Sound Transit says those figures are conservative, and they are lower than current use on the Tacoma-to-Seattle runs that serve more stations.

Sen. Murray said Sounder "means less congestion on our roads, less pollution in our air, and an easier commute for thousands of residents," while King County Executive Ron Sims predicted, "We're going to move as many people per day as you would move in a peak-hour lane of Interstate 5."

It is true that the rider estimate for eight trains is higher than the number of cars per lane of Interstate 5 during the busiest morning hour at Mountlake Terrace. It is less than the number of people who use a peak-hour carpool lane.

Comparing trains to the entire freeway, Sounder patronage would equate to between 1 and 2 percent of approximately 165,000 single and high-occupancy vehicle trips crossing the King-Snohomish county line on I-5 per weekday — not a cure for gridlock, but an alternative.

Agency officials said late last week they are revising the estimates upward and they think annual use will top out at 1.5 million, which would mean nearly full coaches. The six-car trains hold 840 seats apiece, and could be lengthened to eight cars someday with modifications to the station platforms.

Ultimately, the success or failure of Sounder depends on whether cities can attract high-density housing around the stations, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington, who says he is optimistic.

Freight traffic benefits

Sound Transit's money amounts to a significant investment in the state's shipping infrastructure.

Besides supporting BNSF's growth, the track work could shorten trip times for cargo between Seattle and Canada, as well as to the Midwest via Stevens Pass.

In a 1999 environmental-impact statement, the railroad expected to increase the number of daily freight trains from 32 to 40 by the end of this decade. But the new deal says the company expects enough track capacity to increase its cargo traffic by even more.

The two Sounder runs that were dropped in the deal both would have run in the reverse-commute direction, going north in the morning and south in the afternoon. By dropping those, BNSF ensured that passenger trains would never mix with freight trains in both the north and south directions at the same time on the same line.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has approved $15.5 million for a proposed dock at Mukilteo that would allow large Boeing aircraft parts to be loaded from ships onto the expanded track corridor.

Travelers on Amtrak passengers trains could also benefit from fewer delays, and ferry riders from Island and Kitsap counties could improve their commutes by walking onto Sounder near the Mukilteo and Edmonds ferry docks.

In another part of the deal affecting Pierce County, Sound Transit would have an option to lease or buy 21 miles of track, away from the freight mainline, for $30 million — creating a 100-mile corridor that extends Sounder from Tacoma to Lakewood, and perhaps someday, Nisqually.

There are also political implications — a sense of momentum the agency desires as it asks Congress to approve $500 million in proposed Federal Transit Administration (FTA) light-rail grants this summer.

Although Fimia's group believes the Sounder plan is ridiculously expensive for the number of people served, it is not fighting the commuter-rail concept. Instead, the CETA group suggested last week that the FTA should scrap Sound Transit's costlier light-rail line and transfer its money to provide regional commuter trains, which she said should be operated by the state of Washington.

Tom White, a local rail consultant, said that the pending track expansions ought to provide enough space not only for four round-trip trains, but also for additional runs, if the passenger and freight interests build a good relationship.

The preliminary agreement allows more trips to be added, at additional cost, through new negotiations.

"I think the use of this train by people in Snohomish County will be so significant, I think we will be back at the table in a couple years," Drewel predicted.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631

The Everett corridor,then and now

Everett-to-Seattle commuter rail service is part of the Sound Move plan approved by voters in three counties in 1996.

Price then: $132 million *

Local share then: $104 million

Price today: $380 million

Local share today: $288 million

* Sound Transit expected additional grants from Amtrak and the state for track improvements.