Opinion: The true cost of Sound Transit’s light rail is becoming more obvious

Mark Harmsworth of the Washington Policy Center takes a look a the comparison of light rail to cars or living locally 

Mark Harmsworth of the Washington Policy Center takes a look a the comparison of light rail to cars or living locally.

Mark Harmsworth
Washington Policy Center

A recent Crosscut article highlights one University of Washington student’s journey to work and the impact light rail has had on commute times. The article highlights the fact that light rail is encouraging students to live further away from campus in order to find affordable housing.

Mark Harmsworth, Washington Policy Center
Mark Harmsworth, Washington Policy Center

The issue in comparing light rail to cars or living locally, is not an apples to apples comparison.

Light rail for a student is practically free ($92 per quarter). It’s taxpayers who live and drive in Sound Transit’s taxing district who pay an average of $179 each way (or $358 for a round trip) in taxes per rider once the true cost of the trip is taken into account.

Not only is the Tukwila to the U-District trip more expensive on light rail, it is also twice as slow as a car. The car journey for the student can take between 24-30 minutes, while the light rail journey takes about an hour. At the federal reimbursed rate of $0.56 per mile, the cost for a car trip is 30 miles x $0.56 or about $17.  The cost to stay in a dorm to avoid the commute is about $1,000 per month, according to the student.

If the rider had to pay for the true cost of the tickets for a month of travel, which would be around $10,740 ($358 per day for 30 days), the dorm costs become much more attractive. Additionally, the student would save two hours each day in travel time.

Think the $179 per trip is an exaggeration? Light rail in 2021, according to Sound Transit’s annual report, cost $163 million dollars to operate and needed $1.9 billion in capital funding for the expansion of the rails and stations.

Comparing operating costs to ridership in 2021, a simple total operating cost calculation yields a cost per trip of $14. If you factor in the capital costs for 2021, the cost per trip is $179. Proponents of light rail as a cost-effective method of transportation would argue that capital costs cannot be included in the true cost of running the system, but that’s like saying the cost to run a home doesn’t include the mortgage and only includes the utilities and groceries.

Additionally, recent surveys have shown that up to 70% of riders are not paying the fares on the trains, shifting the cost burden to other taxpayers. Already Sound Transit is considering imposing additional taxes and received help from the legislature in the latest transportation package to make up the shortfall.

Post-pandemic ridership is down and the exiting Sound Transit CEO warned back in January that without fare enforcement, Sound Transit would be in trouble. Even before the pandemic hit in January 2020, ridership was declining on the ST Express service.

Light rail is only attractive as an option because it’s free to its riders, paid for by someone else.

A far better solution for public transportation is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) which operates at much lower costs and has almost insignificant capital costs compared to light rail.

Sound Transit’s light rail is an expensive, outdated mode of public transportation and to claim otherwise is disingenuous.

Mark Harmsworth is the director of the Small Business Center at the Washington Policy Center.


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    Scott Hooper

    Well said.

    The only thing I find questionable is that you seem to imply that those capital costs are also an annual bill, but expansions are not; then you roll that entire $1.9B into just one year of operation. This is, I think, a bit of a lark.

    I like the busses better myself, because then the dollars we pour into our roads also support transit.

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    GRAPHIC: Brutal attack at Seattle transit station caught on camera, suspect arrestedPublished: Mar. 15, 2022
    SEATTLE (KING) – A brutal attack was caught on camera at a Seattle transit station earlier this month. The incident happened on March 2 at the International District light rail station near downtown. See link for full report

    A man was found dead and another was injured in a shooting near the Sound Transit Light Link Rail Station in Tukwila Thursday afternoon, Mar. 24, 2022.

    Violent crime plagues Sound Transit’s Mount Baker station Dec 9, 2021,
    “Sound Transit has stepped up its security measures after recent shootings at the Mount Baker station, and emergency calls at the new Northgate station.
    Two people have been killed at the Mount Baker light rail station since June 2021.” See link for full story

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    I’ve seen middle school papers with better journalistic standards than this garbage. Just one of many examples, the author can’t even properly copy and paste from the story he’s ripping off from. Mark claims the student said the cost to stay in a dorm is $3000 per month. Here’s what the Crosscut article says: “the cost of residence halls, which can be up to $3,000 a quarter”.

    If he struggles do a basic copy and paste I bet he doesn’t understand the intricacies of his weekly grocery bill much less a real cost analysis of transportation options.


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