Sound Transit's Money Pit: The High Cost of the Sounder North Line

Sound Transit's finances are prompting a lot of head scratching

Few question the importance of rail as a critical part of the area’s transit options. The Puget Sound region will continue to see dramatic population growth, and at a certain point, rail may be the only effective means of transporting people through the region’s narrow corridors. And as expensive as rail is, going forward, it will still be cheaper than adding new roads. For example, the Sprinter light rail system near San Diego cost $22 million a mile, but a nearby freeway that opened around the same time cost $84 million a mile while swallowing up more land and promising greater carbon emissions.

And the good news about rail is its great networking effects. Rail systems typically increase their ridership disproportionately as new extensions are built. So, while the early lines may have less ridership than expected, once the main lines are built and the transit system is properly connected, there’s a good chance the rail lines will have heavier traffic than expected.

Demographic changes also support an increased reliance on rail. Federal Railroad Administration chief Joseph Szabo noted recently that, between 2001 and 2009, young people reduced driving by 23 percent. Many of those young nondrivers are showing up at train stations, glued to the mobile devices they find essential or simply more fun than a steering wheel. They may look like unlikely saviors, but it is precisely those who are shunning the automobile who may make Sound Transit’s return on investment a matter not for skepticism, but for celebration.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Author C.B. Hall has performed contractual work for the Cascadia Center for Regional Development.