Sounder commuter rail facing growing pains

It took Holly Westerfield two hours to drive from her home in Puyallup to her job interview in Seattle's University District. She landed the internship but couldn't tolerate the stop-and-go traffic.

So she tried the commuter train.

Each morning, the 22-year-old mathematician drives two miles to a Sounder station for the 5:57 a.m. train to King Street Station. From there, she catches a bus to her office at Safeco Insurance by 7:15. In gas and parking, she saves $20 to $25 a day, while her employer picks up the cost of her monthly transit pass.

Riders like Westerfield are suddenly filling up Sound Transit's four south-line trains between Tacoma and Seattle.

Passenger counts have increased by half since last summer, to an average 5,800 rides each weekday (or 2,900 round trips), plus hundreds of trips on weekends by Mariners fans in the summer and Seahawks fans in the fall.

After five years of service, Sounder is feeling its first growing pains.

Park-and-ride lots run out of spaces in the morning. On the afternoon trip home, some passengers have to stand. A dimly lit "quiet car," for people wanting to catch some sleep, has been discontinued so other riders can pour in.

Nonetheless, the line carries only half the riders that politicians predicted in 1996, when voters passed a regional ballot measure to fund rail, bus and park-and-ride facilities.

Nine trains were supposed to be ready by 2002 and reach all the way to Lakewood in south Pierce County — but the line won't get that far until 2011.

Recent growth is brisk enough that Martin Young, Sounder operations manager, predicts the south line will meet its goal of 10,200 to 14,000 daily trips a few years after the $809 million corridor is finished, in the next decade.

It's in far better shape than the north line, serving Everett, Edmonds and Seattle, which handles an average 720 rides each weekday.

Another option

The south line is attracting riders, in part, because so many Seattle workers are living in communities along the south line, where housing is more affordable.

Also, the line became convenient for more commuters last fall when Sounder added a fourth train to give a wider choice of departure times. Soaring gasoline prices have boosted ridership, too, said Sound Transit spokesman Lee Somerstein.

Still, commuter trains will never carry enough people to ease traffic congestion in such a vast area. What they do provide is a travel option that won't turn people into monsters, as Sound Transit's latest ad campaign suggests.

"This is much more relaxed," said upper-deck rider Mike Burns of University Place, Pierce County, as the train cruises past vegetable farms. "If gas was $2 a gallon, I'm still taking the train."

Eileen Salas rides from Tacoma to Seattle, where an employee shuttle van near King Street Station takes her to her job at Harborview Medical Center. She prefers the train even though an express bus is usually faster — except when an accident blocks the freeway.

"I was late for work three times on the bus," Salas said. "I was upset with that, and my boss asked me to find another mode of transportation."

Mercedes Erdey-Heydorn bought a home in Maple Valley, but she balked at wasting an hour or two driving to the Seattle waterfront. Instead, she bicycles 11 miles to the train station in Kent. Besides doing her "10 cents worth" to fight global warming, she got in shape to complete the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic last month.

Heavily subsidized

The easy ride on Sounder comes at a dear price to taxpayers.

Years ago, it sounded simple to launch a commuter-rail system. Just put some passenger trains on freight tracks that already exist.

But the rail corridor is privately owned, so Sound Transit had to pay BNSF Railway for expensive track and signal upgrades — for safety, and so more freight trains could run during the hours that aren't taken up by Sounder.

Startup costs for the north and south lines are expected to reach $1.2 billion, or twice the original estimate, by the end of this decade.

"More than half [the increase] has to do with faulty assumptions, or overly optimistic assumptions, about what we were able to negotiate with BNSF," said Agnes Govern, Sound Transit's director of capital projects. Other increases resulted from delays, environmental work, and amenities such as garages and pedestrian bridges that communities wanted.

Operating costs also exceeded predictions, so that the average one-way trip on Sounder last year required a $14 public subsidy, in addition to the average $2.39 passenger fare.

Jim MacIsaac, a Bellevue engineer who advises rail opponents, has calculated that if the costs of construction and trains are added in, the average subsidy through 2030 will be $45 for a trip on the south line and $68 on the north line — assuming Sounder can achieve its ridership goals. Sound Transit replies it's unfair to count capital costs because the rail system will last for decades to come.

Operating costs per rider would be reduced, assuming trains are added and they're packed.

But commuters in south Tacoma and Lakewood have to wait. Sound Transit delayed the extension, to seek state or federal money for a $40 million overpass at South Tacoma Way. A study last year found that a proposed 26 daily street crossings by Sounder and Amtrak would violate federal safety standards.

Where to park?

Will the south line reach its potential?

Next year, Sounder will test the reverse-commute market, for the first time sending a train south out of Seattle in the morning.

A full complement of nine trains would eventually allow users a three-hour morning window to catch a train, twice as long as now. Sound Transit is considering a midday train, which would require changing the agency's contract with BNSF.

The city of Kent is encouraging condominium projects, to place more riders near its station, but those have yet to materialize. Metro Transit likely will send more feeder buses to the train stations, but so far those haven't been a major source of riders.

That leaves park-and-ride as the primary way people get to Sounder. Parking lots continue to be built, and Sound Transit is likely to include additional parking areas if voters approve a second round of transit projects next year. But expanding the parking areas could promote sprawl by encouraging people to drive from their houses in outlying areas.

Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow, also a transit-board member, is torn between the desire for a garage to replace the town's clogged parking lot and "friction" from locals who dislike traffic from Sounder patrons. He concludes: "It's the right thing to do, to give them access to the train."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

All aboard

Six Sounder commuter trains reach Seattle each weekday.

The Tacoma line takes 60 minutes from Tacoma to Seattle, with stops in Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent and Tukwila. Trains leave Tacoma at 5:45 a.m., 6:20 a.m., 6:45 a.m., and 7:10 a.m. Afternoon trains leave Seattle at 4:20 p.m., 4:45 p.m., 5:10 p.m., and 5:40 p.m.

The Everett line goes from Everett to Seattle in 58 minutes, with a stop in Edmonds. Trains leave Everett at 6:10 a.m. and 6:40 a.m. Afternoon trains leave Seattle at 4:33 p.m. and 5:13 p.m. Monthly passes can be used on either Sounder or Amtrak trains in Snohomish County.

Details about fares, schedules and special trains to sporting events are online at soundtransit.orgor at 800-201-4900.