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Originally published July 30, 2009 at 11:57 AM | Page modified July 30, 2009 at 4:55 PM

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Light rail averaging 12,000 riders per weekday so far

Sound Transit's new Link trains carried an average 12,000 riders per weekday last week, the first five days of regular paid service.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Sound Transit's new Link trains carried an average 12,000 riders per weekday last week, the first five days of regular paid service.

The agency, which issued the figures today, called it "strong ridership."

Link's weekend use is higher, at 16,900 last Saturday and 15,100 Sunday, the agency said. That follows a reported 92,000 boardings over opening weekend, July 18-19, when trips were free.

Totals for the new line, from Westlake Center to Tukwila, are similar to the 358 bus on Aurora Avenue North, or the 7 bus on Rainier Avenue South, two of the highest-performing routes.

They're also comparable to the first three years of Portland's north-end Yellow Line train, which opened in 2004.

By the end of 2010, Sound Transit predicts 26,600 daily boardings.

Actual use varies tremendously by direction and time of day. At 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, a train leaving the Chinatown International District carried 175 people, and some are bringing 100 into downtown at morning peak, according to a Seattle Times reporter's count. There were 19 passengers on a 9:15 a.m. train Tuesday to Tukwila — mostly city workers having their meeting aboard Link.

Trains have been particularly successful moving crowds after public events, when extra railcars are kept on standby next to Stadium Station.

Last Saturday, two extra trains served fans leaving the Sounders FC and Mariners games, and three extra trains left downtown after the Seafair Torchlight Parade, said spokesman Bruce Gray.

Meanwhile, more than 11,000 tickets and ORCA fare cards were bought at train stations last Saturday. "To me, that's a lot of people who are very new to transit" — as contrasted with those who already own passes, Gray said.

Sound Transit is preparing for another busy weekend, with Seafair running free shuttles from Othello Station to the hydroplane course and air show on Lake Washington.

Ridership should grow in the coming months as bus routes change to better feed the train stations; school will restart; the route will extend to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; and people adjust their commute habits to use a train. But trips by people simply touring the novel system will decrease.

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Ridership figures can become highly political in debates over light rail.

Phoenix's new 20-mile light rail has been thriving, with an average 33,553 average weekday boardings in May, far beyond predictions. Minneapolis' 12-mile line is also over 30,000 daily trips, in its fifth year.

Steven Polzin, a traffic expert at the University of South Florida, suspects that U.S. transit agencies commonly set the bar low at first.

"You want to be successful, and obviously you want to lowball, so you can say you beat expectations," he said.

Seattle-area voters last fall approved an $18 billion, 15-year expansion plan to push lines out to Lynnwood, Overlake and north Federal Way, as Sound Transit promised 280,000 daily boardings by then.

"We're encouraged by the large numbers of people who boarded light rail on opening weekend and have started using it every day," said Sound Transit Board Chair and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels in statement. On opening day, Nickels' re-election ads credited him with bringing light rail to fruition.

But Michael Ennis, transportation analyst for the Washington Policy Center, which opposed last year's ballot measure, emphasized that figures for the $2.3 billion Link corridor count a round-trip as two train boardings — so only 6,000 people are served per weekday, most of whom would otherwise take a bus, he said. "You do the math."

The data are collected by sampling about one-third of the rail cars, using infrared sensors in the doorways.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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