Seattle’s Light Metro Too Expensive?

Seattle’s light rail system is really a light-metro system, with over 70% of its route grade separated either on viaduct or in a tunnel (subway), yet ridership is dismal.

This not because the system uses light rail vehicles, but because Seattle’s politicians at all levels wanted a ‘world class’ transit system to ensure Seattle’s world class status.

Sound familiar?

You bet; as it is the same chant used in Vancouver to keep expanding the very expensive SkyTrain light-metro system.

There is an ongoing hubris with transit planners that subways will solve all transit ills, well they don’t and for added insult, they leave one hell of a financial hangover at the end of the day, as so well demonstrated by Metro Vancouver’s recent transit plebiscite.

The big difference between Seattle’s light-metro and Vancouver’s version is that Seattle’s transit authorities do not force all bus customers to transfer onto the metro, as Vancouver’s light-metro’s large ridership can be attributed to the fact that over 80% of SkyTrain’s ridership first take a bus to the metro.

In the USA, people forced to transfer, stop taking transit.


SEATTLE Times has posted an op-ed commentary which says the ridership on the Sound Transit light rail, commuter rail and bus system does not justify a costly expansion at taxpayers’ expense. The guests for this column examined statistics from the 2040 transportation plan for the Puget Sound region. “They show that in 25 years, fewer than 1 percent of all trips will be made on light rail while traffic congestion will only increase.”

There are better ways to spend transit dollars and get higher performance.

Special to The Times

Maggie Fimia is a former Metropolitan King County Council member, 1994-2001. John Niles, president of Global Telematics, is a Seattle-based independent researcher. Victor H. Bishop is a transportation planner and traffic engineer with 50 yearsai??i?? experience.
WE took a close look at data in the Puget Sound Regional Councilai??i??s (PSRC) adopted Transportation 2040 plan. They show that in 25 years, fewer than 1 percent of all trips will be made on light rail while traffic congestion will only increase.
We examined key performance measures we think the public really cares about: transit ridership, congestion, accessibility to jobs via transit, average speed and vehicle miles traveled ai??i?? and put them into a user-friendly report, which can be seen at
For example, by 2040, PSRC estimates $87 billion would be spent for transit ai??i?? assuming 79 miles of light rail are built and bus service is doubled.That amount is nearly half total regional transportation spending. And the percentage of trips by all transit would rise to an estimated 4.3 percent from 3.1 percent ai??i?? almost 90 percent of those transit riders would be on buses, not trains.
These numbers are unacceptable, despite the justification that transit ridership improves during rush hour for downtown Seattle and a few other urban corridors ai??i?? ai???because thatai??i??s what really matters,ai??? we are told.
Our response: This is a regional plan paid for by everyone.
Even more disturbing, why are we led to believe that we are getting different outcomes? Weai??i??re told congestion would be solved at the same time we are warned the only predictable travel would be on rail. That was the argument 20 years ago when we voted to create Sound Transit. Today, light rail carries 0.23 percent of all trips in our region and congestion has increased 52 percent since 2010. Meanwhile, rush-hour buses are packed or not available at all.
Itai??i??s time to ditch the pretty photos and happy talk in the executive summaries and for elected officials to set realistic, measurable goals for our region.
This is not about roads versus transit. This is about honesty, accountability and the future. Investments in both should make sense.
The challenge is that land use and transportation go together. University of Washington Professor Emeritus Jerry Schneider once explained our growth patterns this way:
Picture a map of the region. Now drop a handful of pick-up sticks on the map. VoilAi??, you can see our actual travel and land-use patterns. No surprise that laying down half a pick-up stick every 10 years along a single corridor is not an effective way to deliver needed service. The modeling has shown for decades that fixed light-rail lines do not dictate where the great majority of people decide to live.
There are better ways to spend transit dollars and get higher performance. One is more bus rapid transit now going to more places in our region. More and better bus service do not take decades to implement and would be much more flexible. Weai??i??ve invested billions of dollars in 310 miles of HOV lanes. Letai??i??s expand incentives for commuters to use them.
We call for the Legislature to require the state Department of Transportation, PSRC, Sound Transit and local transit agencies to address the following points before the measure, Sound Transit 3, is put on the ballot:
ai??? Clearly and consistently state the regionai??i??s goals and key performance measures, and explain how they will be achieved.
ai??? Identify how the state will deliver on its commitment to keep HOV lanes at 45 mph, 90 percent of the time.
ai??? Explain how and when tolls will be in place and what the plan is to prevent soaring congestion on arterials.
Proper public transportation planning requires balancing performance numbers and cost numbers. Long-standing performance measures that helped our region move into the top 10 for transit ridership are now buried in documents or not measured at all. We believe they should be front and center, and we ignore them at our peril.
Maggie Fimia is a former Metropolitan King County Council member, 1994-2001. John Niles, president of Global Telematics, is a Seattle-based independent researcher. Victor H. Bishop is a transportation planner and traffic engineer with 50 yearsai??i?? experience.


11 Responses to “Seattle’s Light Metro Too Expensive?”
  1. Rico says:

    While I have some issues with the Seattle line I would like to point out a few things. The first is currently it is only a starter line, the second is it has relatively low ridership…..but ridership keeps growing at a significant rate and is showing no signs of slowing, it has increased 113% since 2010. I am pretty sure you will see ridership explode when U Link opens this year (next phase). I will also point out although it took Seattle a while to get rid of duplicate routes it has now done so over much of the line. Another important thing for people unfamiliar with Seattle is the authors, John Niles is a frequent commentor on Seattle Transportation blog and basically always advocates the same thing, Seattle loves single family housing and cars and anything else will never work and should not be allowed…sort of like a more polite Eric Chris. I also should note the ‘fewer than 1% of all trips,’ uses the entire Seattle region, even areas miles from any bus service (exactly like using the entire lower mainland to attack transit in Vancouver).

    Zwei replies: Rico, sometimes I just have to laugh. I have talked to the original promoters of the Seattle LRT and they have washed their hands of it. Too expensive and too political, yet has not been the customer getter that everyone hoped for. In the USA, LRT is becoming light-metro in drag for one simple reason, political friends and insiders stand to reap massive profits from huge amounts of federal dollars invested. Subway construction in the USA id more to keep engineering companies solvent, than is to provide good transit.

    By the way, metro resident also prefer single family housing instead of the cramped crap that passes for condos being built today and are fleeing the city for the burbs and if it were not for the U-Pass, ridership on TransLink would tell a different story.

  2. Rico says:

    Actually after years of not meeting the original ridership projections the Seattle line has done so. Ridership started off slow….very slow and everyone said see…Seattle was even forced to revise their forecasts for ST2 based on the poor ridership…but year after year saw steady ridership increases even after the ridership projections forecast flattening ridership gains…I think LINK caught up to the original ridership forecasts last year…maybe your friends washed their hands too soon…

  3. Rico says:

    An apology, John Niles is a regular commentator on Seattle Transit, but he was not the single family house, must have a car guy I was thinking of.

  4. Haveacow says:

    The Seattle Area has a population of about 3.6 million spread between 3 urban/suburban counties and 2 mostly rural ones. Seattle was the last of the major west coast cities to adopt or readopt, depending on your time scale point of view, rail based transit. There was a lot of pressure to do this even though they had a very successful bus based system.

    There are 4 area transit systems, the first 3 represent transit for a specific county. The Largest agency is the Seattle based King County Metro which handles most of the bus transit services in the region. It has 2 historic streetcar trolley routes and a skeletal express bus system that has moderate to high ridership. The agency as a whole has a fleet of roughly 1100-1200 buses, it also handles the majority of the transit ridership in the city.

    The last is a regional system called Sound Transit. It is responsible for a 3 county area and owns the Central Link LRT line as well as 3 planned extensions. It also runs the Sounder Commuter Rail Line and the Tacoma Link LRT line in Tacoma (Everett County). Tacoma’s LRT line is short downtown only line that links various areas in downtown Tacoma. It has one extension planned but it is difficult because Sound Transit can’t without permission use local streets. Sound Transit operates a system of long ranged regional express bus routes.

    Seattle’s high cost for its LRT system starts from there. Sound Transit also has to get permission to use City streets and that has been difficult to get because of traffic and NIMBY concerns. The East Link Extension to Bellevue was forced underground by its own board because its members (locally elected) who represented Bellevue and the surrounding areas did not want LRT cluttering up their streets, especially downtown. Mostly for NIMBY reasons and fearing invasion from “downtown Seattle problems”, which hide a number of questionable reasons.

    Seattle is also very hilly so, standard LRT motors and would not be cost effective unless great engineering efforts were taken to lower slopes. The other choice being non standard electric motors which can greatly increase the cost of the LRV’s. Since the LRV order from Kiniki Sharyo was done in concert with Pheonix’s LRT system great care was taken to have LRV’s which were as low cost as possible, therefore improved motors were not on the menu so to speak so, greater engineering costs to lower track slopes carried the day. Could they operate on greater slopes than say the LRT standard of 5%, sure they could but this would raise operating costs. I am also sure that many of the local construction companies were quite happy with that decision too. Using just Sound Transit’s numbers as a metre of how successful transit is wrong, when you consider it is a regional system that offers service in a few key routes/corridors not the entire local area transit system. This why the numbers look so bad. For example, its like saying GO Transit in the Toronto Area should be invested in because it doesn’t carry a majority of all the Greater Golden Horseshoe’s transportation numbers now, or in the future. It doesn’t seem to matter that any research claiming that is denying the existence of over 28 other local and regional transit agencies in the same area including the largest, Toronto’s TTC. Well you can’t make the statement that Sound Transit’s LRT is too expensive to build because it will only cover a fraction of the areas entire daily transportation numbers now, or in the future when it isn’t the largest service even in Greater Seattle, that tittle goes to King County Metro.

    Now Seattle’s LRT is heavily built compared to most LRT systems, 115-120 Metre long station platforms that can hold 4 car consists. Especially when it presently only runs 2 car consists. Most of the ROW is above grade or in tunnels, there are very few surface sections. As stated before, this was because of the hilly geography of Seattle and the fact that most of the surface ROW’s were disallowed for their use, by LRT. Yes it is expensive but they did not have much choice. Earlier LRT plans were being attacked by experts critical of Sound’s Transit’s need to be cheap and having a complete lack of capacity, resulting in the end product a really over built first line with a lot of capacity. The funny thing is that, that’s what passed with the experts and the voters. Nobody wants it running on their street so large sections gets shoved underground. When Sound Transit plans to run a section of a new LRT extension on a area road, it immediately gets attacked by voters/drivers because it not only takes away road space but the resulting service will be too slow because of all the traffic on the surface road. Sound familiar!

    When I was working on the beginnings of what would be the VIVA system in York Region I was told by a resident, “You can’t build this busway in the middle of our major roads even if its the cheapest option because, that will take away road space and if you do we will sue you your company and the region and tie this project up for years”! That same person also told me,” if this busway is too expensive no taxpayer will support it anyway”. This same person also was one of the people who raised up their hand, when the crowd was asked if they wanted better and cheaper public transit that favored transit over cars! I have a good idea what the guys at Sound Transit were possibly facing when the first public meetings for their LRT line were held.

    Zwei replies: The other major problem, Seattle’s transit planners had to contend with was the monorail lobby. I have been told personally by a Seattle transit planner that if it were not for the monorail lobby, Seattle’s LRT would have been almost a clone of Portland’s MAX.

  5. Haveacow says:

    Oops, that should be, for example, its like saying GO Transit in the Toronto Area shouldn’t be invested in because it doesn’t carry a majority of all the Greater Golden Horseshoe’s transportation numbers now, or in the future.

  6. Richard says:

    Only transfers with long waits discourage ridership significantly. SkyTrain, which at peak hours, has frequencies better than elevators in most buildings does not discouage ridership. In fact, it provides a nice opportity to stretch ones legs.

    Zwei relies: Dead wrong Richard, nice try. You are desperate arn’t you, “it provides a nice opportity to stretch ones legs”, you are joking I hope.

  7. eric chris says:

    @Reek, how are your calcs coming? What’s taking so long?

    “How about you do the math for us, Rico? Show us that three trams lines at grade to UBC with a combined capacity of 40,000 pphpd do not have more capacity than one subway line having 12,500 pphpd in capacity to UBC? Show us that the capital and operating costs of the subway line to UBC are less than the capital and operating costs of three tram lines to UBC.

    Okay, do it. I’m waiting for your “math”. Of course, there will be no math forthcoming from you as usual. You know the reason, Rico? You’re an idiot. Saying that s-train has more capacity than the tram (for the money spent) is like saying that water flows uphill by gravity.”

    Carbon emissions
    This evening: the No. 14 diesel bus service on the No.14 “trolleybus route” has essentially no riders (why run zero emission trolleybuses, when carbon emitting diesel buses cost more to operate?). All the other bus routes to UBC have barely any riders, too. Nevertheless, the talent at TransLink intends to increase bus service to UBC along Broadway and lower service in Port Coquitlam – to increase ridership.

    How do very loud and disruptive EMPTY 99 diesel buses spewing out massive amounts of GHG emissions reduce GHG emissions, Reek? In Vancouver, transit does not reduce carbon emissions, but electric vehicles do.

    Road congestion
    Transit by TransLink (s-train and b-line) does not reduce road congestion. As a result, any transit on the roads compounds road congestion. If the goal is to reduce road congestion, shouldn’t we be getting rid of transit? This is what the research shows.

    So, given that s-train does not reduce road congestion and carbon emissions, what’s the reason for s-train, Reek? What’s with your perverse fascination with s-train costing much more than the tram and taking longer to travel than the tram? Is it for concrete firms to mine sand to make concrete being sold to TransLink building concrete guideways for TransLink to destroy the planet?

    Maybe it is for scumbag developers to build concrete “sweet- investor” condos along s-train lines to wipe out affordable family housing in Vancouver. You know what they say: “neighbourhoods near rapid transit tend to dramatically increase in value”. How does this make Vancouver more affordable for young families, Reek?

    Transit is twice as slow as driving on average (Statistics Canada). Bus rapid transit (BRT) such as the No. 99 BRT is not fast. It is bus less slow (BLS).

    I lived in Washington State for 10 years and in Seattle for five years. Freeways are fast 99% of the time. If you are not travelling to work during rush hour, you can go anywhere in Seattle in a short time. In Vancouver, you are stuck at lights every block, 100% of the time, for a long time. What’s better, s-train used by losers taxing drivers to ride transit for almost free or freeways used by drivers paying their own way in electric vehicles?

    Well, Reek, you ponder this stuff for awhile. Okay?

  8. Haveacow says:

    Eric, Zwei, Rico is right, transfers do not, I repeat, don not discourage ridership unless they extend the time for the total journey usually, beyond 7-10 minutes that would be taken in a single seat to destination journey. Yes the transfer has to be quick, easy and efficient.This has been looked at for many organizations like the APTA, CUTA,UITP and others for over 40 years. Transferring is a fact of life in the class of cities that Greater Vancouver is now in. Single seat to destination trips are not always possible because they require an agency to provide a greater number of individual routes and takes away frequency from all other routes. When asked people don’t mind waiting 7-10 minutes transferring, if it means they are going to have greater frequency of service all day not just in rush hour. This way transit agencies can reduce the total number of routes, build up ridership than in the future add more routes and build up their frequency.

    Guys, the days when you took take the single bus to downtown is dead because the majority of jobs and destinations are not in downtown or one area anymore. Transfers have to be done because the most efficient surface route is a straight line. Unless you want to pay a lot more local taxes for more roads and transit, and boy you guys do pay considerably less local taxes than we do in Ontario, you have to expect some type of limit. If you want to drive, go ahead but also the days where you can drive everywhere you want to go when you want to do it is also over now in North America, its just over. Cities just can’t afford to service sprawl development anymore. You may not like intensification but when you have so little population density with all those new homes it just is not feasible anymore to provide road and transit space for all these low density areas. Also unless you are in the top 5% financially, you soon won’t be able to afford to buy a car anymore because so much of it is plastic and the cost of that is getting higher even though oil the thing that makes plastic, has dropped in price.

    Zwei replies: Actually BC Transit, just before the split to TransLink had some interesting studies about transfers and how they deterred ridership. When the Canada Line opened, ridership from south Delta declined, especially with older transit customers because they loathed the forced transfer from bus to the Canada Line, so much so that all the extra rush hour buses that we added have disappeared, mainly due to lack of ridership. This has been masked in south Surrey, where a burgeoning population has masked a fall in ridership. My American friends in the industry also have some interesting comments about transfers and forced transfers.

  9. eric chris says:


    I agree with you about densification being necessary to curb urban sprawl. That is not what is happening in Vancouver. If we had moderate densification, 20% to 50% to maintain the character of communities and used trams to provide the transit for the added transit users, that would be fine.

    What TransLink is doing is chasing out families (from Vancouver) to build “investor” condos. – one bedrooms and penthouses for “sheiks” and their harems. It is $$%%. TransLink is increasing urban sprawl with s-train opening up new communities and most people in these communities drive. This leads to more roads. None of the condos come with a transit pass. They come with garages for cars.

    By the way, TransLink uses transfers to inflate its “imagined” ridership figures with number of “boardings” which it brags about while ridership continues to fall. Geez, does ICBC insuring cars brag about the number of times that drivers board their cars? Here is some of a future email to the COV:

    “Statistically in Vancouver, the express diesel BRT (99 B-line) service which TransLink uses to replace the regular electric trolleybus service on the No. 9 trolleybus route: adds five million kilograms of CO2 emissions annually to the air shed and costs transit users one minute per trip to travel by transit, on average.

    For about 80% of the time during weekends, holidays and evenings: commuting with BRT service is actually two minutes slower than commuting with regular trolleybus service. That is, for the median distance of 5,000 metres commuted in Vancouver, the shorter time to reach the bus stop (spaced ~255 metres apart) with regular trolleybus service more than offsets the time saved by the BRT service (stops spaced ~1,083 metres apart)…

    Similarly, during peak hours for 20% the time, the BRT service is a mere two minutes faster than the trolleybus service. Overall, for both the peak and off-peak commuting times, the BRT service is one minute slower than the trolleybus service, on average…

    In these calculations: riders taking BRT on the No. 99 route walk an average of about 271 metres for the ~1,083 metre spacing of the BRT stops and riders taking the trolleybus on the No. 9 route walk an average of about 64 metres for the ~255 metre spacing of the trolleybus stops.

    Essentially, the BRT service in Vancouver is a sham. Time saved by BRT is an illusion, and BRT on the No. 99 route increases CO2 emissions by five million kilograms annually to make transit slower by one minute per trip, for most transit users. What do your talented “transportation professionals” have to say about this? Ultimately, they are the ones who are behind it, and TransLink can’t do anything without their approval.”

  10. zweisystem says:

    Just a quick note. The Karlsruhe TramTrain came into being, in part, to do away with a cumbersome transfer from commuter train to tram at the Central Station. The result was immediate and dramatic, an almost 500% increase in ridership in the first six months of operation!

  11. Haveacow says:

    I agree, the transfer does have to be convenient take the Shepard LRT to Sheppard Subway interchange. The only tunneled portion on the Sheppard Ave East LRT Line is when the line clears Brian Drive heading west and must pass under the Don Valley and Highway 404 (Sheppard Ave. is actually on a bridge over the Highway at this point) where the LRV’s enter the platform level at the Sheppard Subway. Passengers simply get off of the LRV’s walk across the Don Mills Station platform and get on the Sheppard Subway.

Leave A Comment