If ridership doesn't improve, Sound Transit's operating expenses this year for its new Sounder commuter train between Everett and Seattle could add up to more than $38 for each one-way passenger.
Adults pay $3 for each one-way trip on the train. At current ridership levels, that amounts to a taxpayer subsidy of more than $35 for each passenger.
Sound Transit officials say the expenses per rider will come down as more trains are added to the route and more people learn about the system.
The current subsidy is just for operating costs such as train crews, equipment maintenance and insurance. It doesn't include any part of the line's estimated $393 million capital cost through 2009.
No commuter-rail system in the country comes close to breaking even. But according to statistics submitted by commuter-rail agencies to the Federal Transit Administration for fiscal 2002 — the most recent year for which information is available — none had an operating cost per rider as high as $38.
The Sounder Everett line began running just before Christmas. With the first quarter of 2004 drawing to a close, daily ridership has been averaging a little over half of what Sound Transit projected.
The 2000 kickoff of the agency's other commuter-rail line, between Tacoma and Seattle, was more successful. It began service with two inbound trains in the morning and two outbound trains in the afternoon, while the Everett line now offers just one train in each direction.
Sound Transit and outside transportation experts say that's probably the line's biggest problem.
The Seattle Times calculated the estimated cost per rider after the Sound Transit board last week approved the final piece of the Everett line's 2004 operating budget. Sound Transit spokesman Lee Somerstein said the calculation focuses attention in the wrong place.
"We really think looking at cost per rider today is unfair," he said. "We didn't build it for today."
The agency plans to expand service to four trains in each direction by 2007. The line's operating cost per rider will improve as more riders become familiar with the service and as more trains are added, Somerstein said: "When we're built out, we expect to be right in there with everybody else."
But he acknowledged the Everett line's 2004 ridership will fall short of the 175,000 passengers the agency had projected. Just 18,529 one-way riders had boarded the trains through the end of last week.
"No, we're not going to hit it," Somerstein said of the ridership target.
Thomas Heller, a transportation consultant and Sound Transit critic, said the agency is "setting a new 'gold standard' for subsidizing transit riders, ... and its contribution to solving congestion is infinitesimal."
The Sounder Everett line was the Snohomish County centerpiece of the three-county "Sound Move" transit package voters approved in 1996. That plan called for six trains in each direction, at a total capital cost of $89 million in 1995 dollars.
Money troubles and tough negotiations with Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the tracks, delayed the project. An agreement with the railroad that provided for access and improvements to the tracks wasn't signed until last December, days before the first train ran.
As a result, the 2004 Sounder Everett operating budget wasn't completed until last week, when the Sound Transit board authorized payments of $826,000 to Burlington Northern Santa Fe to run the trains. That brought the total operating budget for the year to $4.065 million.
So far this year, the Everett-Seattle train has carried an average of about 314 one-way passengers each weekday, with little variation from week to week in February and March. Ridership actually was strongest in January, when Sound Transit, hoping to attract new riders, didn't charge for the trip.
If weekday ridership continues at that level for the rest of the year, and if Sound Transit's ridership projection is accurate for special trains it plans to run to Sunday afternoon Mariners and Seahawks games, total ridership for the year would be about 105,000 — 60 percent of what the agency projected.
The operating expense per one-way passenger: about $38.50.
According to the Federal Transit Administration's National Transit Database, the commuter rail line with the highest operating cost per rider in 2002 was the Keystone between Harrisburg, Pa., and Philadelphia at $35.77.
Only one other line topped $20. Sound Transit's 2002 operating cost per rider for its Tacoma-Seattle Sounder line was $14.74. In 2001, that line's first full year of operation, the figure was $21.23.
Somerstein said it's misleading to compare Sounder Everett's startup operating costs with those of more established commuter lines. He pointed to Sound Transit's latest financial plan, which projects that in 2010, the line will carry 600,000 riders at an operating cost per rider of $13.41.
The agency's critics have questioned the validity of those projections.
Commuter rail's operating costs per rider generally are higher than those of other transit modes. In Washington, according to the National Transit Database, Metro Transit's 2002 operating cost per bus rider was $3.98. For Washington State Ferries, the cost per passenger was $11.20.
Somerstein said efforts to attract riders to the Sounder Everett line have been hindered by having just one trip in the morning and one in the afternoon, and by the morning train's awkward arrival time.
It pulls into Seattle's King Street Station at 7:54 a.m., which means most commuters can't get to downtown offices by 8. Sound Transit is talking with Burlington Northern Santa Fe about changing the schedule so the train arrives five or 10 minutes earlier, Somerstein said.
The agency also is advertising the line in Snohomish County media, he said, suggesting people consider riding the train to work and the bus home, or vice versa. "We're marketing it like crazy," Somerstein said. "We're doing the best we can with the hand we've been dealt."
Sound Transit plans to add a second round-trip train next year. For now, having just one train in each direction probably is the line's greatest handicap, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.
The route's long-range success depends to a great extent on whether city officials in Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds promote development around stations that support rail, he added.
Steve Polzin, director of public-transit research at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, said he doesn't know of any other commuter rail line that began service with just one train a day in each direction.
"You leave your passenger in a real funny situation," he said. "If you miss the train, how do you get home?"
What's more, Polzin said, "There's no economies of scale in a single train." Insurance, for instance, probably won't cost much more for two trains than it does for one, he said.
Commuter rail is expensive, Polzin said, and it must attract large numbers of riders to make economic sense. If it doesn't, he said, it's like a family buying a bus to go on vacation: "Everybody's comfortable, and you've got lots of room, but it's not real efficient."
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or email@example.com