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Originally published March 2, 2011 at 8:35 PM | Page modified March 3, 2011 at 8:12 AM

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Sound Transit ridership falls short of goals

Sound Transit's commuter rail, light rail and bus services all missed their ridership goals last year.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Sound Transit's commuter-rail, light-rail and bus services all missed their ridership goals last year, a problem agency officials blame mainly on the poor economy.

However, the goals were set in 2009, after the economic downturn was under way.

The low ridership raises the question of when the taxpayers' multibillion-dollar investment in Sounder and Link rail might be rewarded by heavy ridership — something political boosters have promised since the mid-1990s.

The $2.6 billion Link light-rail line carried an average 77 people per train last year, compared with a goal of 88 people. Average weekday boardings were 21,611 in the fourth quarter, less than a prediction of 26,600 the agency published near the 2009 grand opening. Last fall, night and weekend trips were reduced from two rail cars to one because that's all the line needed.

There have been some positive signs, though.

During the deep freeze Nov. 22, the Link trains were nearly flawless on their route from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and the line carried 29,331 riders. Many trains exceeded 100 passengers, and some more than 200, as holiday travelers added to the normal commute riders.

Unlike buses that are busiest in fall, light rail has been robust in summer, especially serving Sounders and Mariners sports fans. Also, fourth-quarter ridership was up 38 percent from 2009 — showing the value of the SeaTac/Airport Station that opened in December 2009.

The agency hasn't set its 2011 ridership goals yet, but a draft service plan called for 31,000 average daily boardings on Link next year, and 40,600 in 2016.

Sounder trains, connecting Seattle's King Street Station to Everett and Tacoma, carried fewer people than in 2009, because of the recession as well as mudslides on the Everett line.

Transit-board member Dave Enslow, the Sumner mayor, said that's not surprising, because Sounder is a commuter service that depends on employment. "I rode home on the Sounder a while ago; I was surprised there was more room than I thought," he said.

But Enslow said the lagging numbers don't alarm him. He emphasized the rail lines are a 100-year investment.

"I think jobs are getting better. Gas is going up, and I do expect better ridership," he said.

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King County Metro reports its ridership dropped about 2.6 percent last year, but many of the Metro and Sound Transit commuter buses are still running full.

The onset of tolls for the Highway 520 bridge this spring should increase bus ridership, said Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason.

John Niles, a longtime skeptic of Link, said: "I think the way to boost ridership would be to cut fares, have a bargain season or something."

Adult fares range from $1.75 to $2.50, based on distance.

Mike Ennis, transportation analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center, said officials should think twice about pushing forward with the $18 billion "Sound Transit 2" program, mainly to build suburban rail extensions. He opposed a sales-tax increase voters passed in 2008 to pay for it. Ennis suggested increases in park-and-ride lots, to entice the majority who use cars.

"They owe it to the voters to figure out what's happening before they spend any more money," Ennis said.

Board member Enslow replied that the agency should stay focused on delivering new transit projects the voters want.

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

Comparing Sound Transit ridership
Total passenger boardings per year:
Transit type 2009 2010 2010 target
ST Express bus 12.9 million 12.5 million 13.7 million
Sounder commuter rail 2.5 million 2.4 million 2.7 million
Link light rail (Seattle) 2.5 million 6.9 million 8.1 million
Source: Sound Transit annual ridership report

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