Transportation Spending

50% of Transportation Spending Devoted to Transit Carrying 4.5% of Rides by 2040

  • Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) Vision 2040 [a-e]
    • $191 billion (2015$) projected transportation spending 2010-2040 [c]
    • 50% of spending for transit to provide 4.5% of rides by 2040
  • How can so much money accomplish so little?
  • Wasteful projects
    • Duplicate instead of add high quality service
    • Increases transit costs
    • Reduce convenience

(References & Calculations)

How Does So Much Money Accomplish So Little? SOUNDTRANSIT Light Rail

  • Frequent, fast & convenient mass transit lacking over hundreds of miles of roads providing NO reasonable alternative to driving
  • Light Rail explodes costs of moving people over well served routes instead of adding NEW high quality service (ie: Swift) [f]
    • Swift is an example of adding high frequency and speed bus service using the most cost effective methods (discussed on website)

(References & Calculations)

So Much Money for So Little
Wonder how our local transit agencies can spend 50% of our transportation dollars on projects which support less then 5% of our daily trips? Click Sound Transit Extreme Cost Light Rail to see the story of how Sound Transit, our regional transit agency, is determined to make this a reality by spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars building a light rail system which will carry less than 1% of our regions daily trips. There is, however, an alternate scenario based on providing the maximum new and improved transit service for each dollar spent, which I also describe at Bus Rapid Transit BRT When Costs Matter.


  1. Puget Sound Regional Council, “Transportation 2040 Update Report,” May 29, 2014, p 37 Financial Summary 2010-2040 . See table.
  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “CPI Inflation Calculator,”  $1 (2008) = $1.10 (2015)
  3. $173.6 billion (2008$)* 1.10 (2016$/2008$) = $191 billion (2015$)
  4. dollars converted to fraction of spending
  5. ibid, p. 64, Travel Mode Share. See table.
  6. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) When Costs Matter chart, Local BRT “lite” vs. Light Rail: Snohomish County Swift vs. Seattle Light Rail

Sound Transit Light Rail Extreme Costs

What is Sound Transit?

Sound Transit is one of multiple transit agencies in King, Pierce and Snohomish County. It formed in 1996 to provide regional transit for the counties’ 1080 square miles.

Sound Transit collects money from taxpayers to build and run LINK light rail, and then pays other transit agencies to run commuter (express) buses and commuter trains (Sounder North and Sounder South). It hires public relations firms to create very effective campaigns to convince taxpayers to continually increase taxes to support their goals. Most of the money Sound Transit collects is devoted to light rail construction, the focus of Sound Transit Revealed, even though light rail accounts for a much smaller portion of the region’s transit than buses.

Sound Transit Seattle Light Rail Key Facts

The first segment of their system between Downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport, called Seattle Central Link, cost $2.93 billion(2014$) and began service in 2009. Here are some key facts about Seattle Central Link Light Rail.

  • Very expensive to build and run
    • Most expensive starter system per mile in US history (in 2014) [a]
    • Lost more money per ride than all but 5 US rail systems (2013) [b]
    • Cost $2.93 billion (2014$) to build which comes to $182,800 (2015$) per daily round trip rider served in 2015 [c-g]
    • Recurring financial burden since rail systems require extensive rehab about every 30 years [h]
    • Operating costs per passenger mile much higher than commuter (express) buses (2013) [i, j]
  • Increased transit time by eliminating 194 express bus [k]
  • Exploded cost of moving passengers over best served route instead of improving transit over underserved roadways
How do you feel about paying thousands of dollars in taxes to build a light rail system that costs $1 million for every 5 or 6 riders it carries back and forth to work each day (in addition to the daily operating costs since riders paid 31% of those costs in 2015)?

Sound Transit Sets Record for Most Expensive Starter Light Rail System in US History

Central Link was the most expensive starter light rail system in US History when it opened in 2009 at $185 to $188 million(2014$)/mile. Costs have since increased for the ST2 projects with the recently opened University link reaching close to $600 million/mile. These are unimaginable amounts for a LOW capacity transit system, which Seattle light rail is.

  • SOUNDTRANSIT Light Rail record setting costs for initial line [l]
    • ST2 costs = $350 million/mile, University Link = $600 million/mile [m, n]

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 7.53.12 PM

Why are we spending hundreds of millions of dollars per mile to duplicate our highest frequency best transit service while the overwhelming majority of the Sound Transit taxing district has far worse transit options? During rush hour it can take 20 minutes to drive 2 blocks down a major arterial in Lynnwood which has minimal bus service.

Sound Transit Seattle Light Rail Increased Operating Costs Compared to Express BusesScreen Shot 2016-05-14 at 8.05.19 PM

Sound Transit used lower operating costs to justify building light rail, which is the primary potential advantage to rail compared to a bus system.

  • Sound Transit’s light rail, though, costs more to run than commuter buses
  • The cost advantage of cheap electricity & fewer drivers is overwhelmed by under occupied trains


  1. Light Rail Now website, “New U.S. light rail transit starter systems — Comparative total costs per mile,” May 6, 2014
  2. Alison, Burke, “The 10 U.S. metro rail systems that lose the most money per passenger,” June 3, 2015.
  3. p. 8, Table 2-1: Project Costs in Year of Expenditure $ 2.558 billion
    p. 9, Table 2-2: Project Costs in 2009 $ 2.665 billion,  15.6 miles built (2009)
    9% spent on right of way
  4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, CPI Inflation Calculator  $1 (2009$) = $1.10 (2014$)
  5. 2.665 billion (2009$)*1.10 (2014$/2009$) = 2.9315 billion (2014$)
  6. 10,950,234 2014 Central link boardings Sound Transit Website, “Sound Transit Operations December 2015 Service Performance Report,” 11,707,604 2015 Central link boardings, 31% fare recovery
  7. 2.9315 billion(2015$)/(11.7 million rides/year)*(365 days/year)=$91,393 (2015$/daily ride)
    $91,393(2015$/daily ride) * 2 daily rides/daily round trip = $182,787 per daily roundtrip $97,770 (2014$/daily ride) in 2014
  8. O’ Toole, Randal, “The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future,” p 258,  2007.
  9. Federal Transit Administration Data – NTD Data – Transit Agency ProfilesCentral Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, operating expenses per passenger mile 2014 Commuter bus: $0.42, Light Rail $0.73, Street Car Rail $5.38, Commuter Rail $0.52, Light Rail/commuter bus = Light Rail/Commuter bus = .73/.42 = 1.738 74% higher light rail operating costs
  10. ibid, Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet) operating expenses per passenger mile 2014, Light Rail/Commuter bus = .50/.84 = 0.595 40% lower light rail operating costs.
  11. Sound Transit Light Rail Extreme Costs, Sound Transit Light Rail Increases Travel Times Compared to Express Buses or BRT
  12. Light Rail Now website, “New U.S. light rail transit starter systems — Comparative total costs per mile,” May 6, 2013
  13. from Sound Transit Light Rail Extreme Costs , Sound Transit Voter Approved Light Rail Taxpayer Funding ref k) $12.696 billion (2014$) / 36 miles = $353 million(2014$)/ mile

Sound Transit’s Light Rail Money Grab

History of SOUNDTRANSIT’s Voter Approved Light Rail Taxpayer Funding

  • 1996 SOUNDTRANSIT 1 (Sound Move): Voters taxed more to get less
    • Voters approve $2.84 billion (2014$) for 21 miles of Seattle rail [a-e]
    • Most expensive 1/3rd of Seattle line cancelled after costs double
    • $2.93 billion (2014$) spent for 15.6 miles of Seattle light rail [f]
  • 2008 SOUNDTRANSIT 2 (ST2) funding request
    • Requested before initial starter line served a single rider
    • Voters approve $11.15 billion(2014$) for 36 miles of light rail [g-k]
  • 2016 SOUNDTRANSIT 3 (ST3) proposal to increase taxes again
    • $17.7 billion(2014$) announced March 2016
    • Less than 10% of ST2 funded line is in-service (3.15 mile of 36 miles)


  1. Sound Transit Central Link Light Rail voter approved promised performance data,
    Table 1. Costs: Electric Light Rail $1.8 billion (1995$) (includes Tacoma)
    Debt service for Table 1 projects is $171 million of $3.914 billion total proposed spending..
    Assigning debt service to Light Rail 1.8 billion *(171/3,914) = $79 million
    $1.8 billion + $79 million = $1.879 billion (1996$) for Light Rail
    Sound Move includes 25-miles of a starter light rail system (p. 15)
    25-miles total – 1.6 miles Tacoma = 23.4 miles Seattle + 26 Stations
    21-miles minimum for Seattle
  2. CPI Inflation Calculator  $1 in 1995$ = $1.55 in 2014$

  3. $1.879 billion (1995$) * 1.55 (2014$/1996$) = $2.912 billion (2014$)

  4.,  Sound Transit’s Tacoma Link light rail system begins operation on August 22, 2003 from Tacoma Light Rail initial estimated cost $50 million (1996$)

  5. Sound Transit voter approved Seattle Light Rail cost
    1.879 billion (1995$) – 50 million (1995$) (Tacoma estimated cost) = 1.829 billion (1995$)
    1.829 billion (1995$) * 1.55 (2014$/(1995$) = 2.835 billion (2014$)
  6. Sound Transit Seattle Central Link Actual Light Rail Costs converted to 2014$
    Sound Transit, Table 2-2: Project Costs in 2009 $  2.665 billion  15.6 miles built (2009)
    2.665 billion (2009$)*1.10 (2014$/2009$) = 2.9315 billion (2014$)
  7. page A-5 Year of Expenditure Dollars (2009-2023) 11.821 billion Link Light Rail Capitol Costs out of 13.418 total capitol costs,  1.871 billion O&M, 1.835 billion Debt Service for all projects
    Link Light Rail Debt Service  = $1.835 billion * (11.821/13.418) = $1.617 billion
  8. Debt Service cost as fraction of Capitol Construction =  1.617 (debt service))/ 11.821 (capitol cost) = 0.1368

  9. ST2 Light Rail estimated cost 11.821 (capitol) + 1.617 (debt service) = $11.821 billion for  36 miles of track, stations, and rolling stock in Year of Expenditure (YOE) $.   Need to convert YOE to 2014$ to compare spending to peer cities

  10. Sound Transit 2: Benefit-Cost Analysis Methodology Report, APPENDIX B — BENEFIT-COST ANALYSIS RESULTS, adopted by the Sound Transit Board on July 24, 2008.  $8.6 Billion (2007$) Sound Transit Capitol Cost Estimate for ST2 Light Rail Expansion, p B-3, for 36 miles of light rail.

  11. Add debt service and convert ref l) costs to 2014$
    $8.6 Billion (2007$)* (1+0.137)*1.14 (2014$)/(2007$) = $11.147 Billion (2014$)
  12. $11.147 Billion (2014$) for 36 miles of rail = $310 million(2014$)/mile
  13. Sound Transit Website, ST2 Plan and project list.

  14. 2.9315 + 11.147 = $14.082 billion (2014$) spent and/or approved by taxpayers for Seattle Light Rail by 2008 before any lines were running and citizens could assess performance

  15.  email Sent: Wed 4/06/16 2:03 PM from Q’Deene Nagasawa of SoundTransit, “In response to your request, Light Rail capital spending as included in the DRAFT ST3 plan total $34.3 billion in YOE dollars, and $17.7 billion in 2014 dollars”

Comparison with Northwest Peers

Time for a Sanity Check

To provide a perspective on the size and timing of such large funding requests it helps to look at our closest peer cities building light rail systems, Vancouver, BC and Portland, Oregon.

Vancouver is a higher density higher cost city with a light rail system similar to a heavy rail system due to extensive tunneling and 100% separation from vehicle traffic. Shorter stations, however, prevent it from obtaining the higher capacities of a heavy rail system. Light rail stands for light capacity. Some have referred to it as an intermediate rail system.

Portland, Oregon is a lower cost lower density city with a more typical lower cost light rail system. It shares the road for much of the routing limiting capacity and speed, similar to Seattle’s Central Link.

SOUNDTRANSIT Seattle Light Rail Funding vs. Vancouver, BC & Portland, Oregon [b] Spending History (plus daily rides) [a-e]

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 8.53.47 PM

When Performance Falls Short Ask for More Money

Vancouver and Portland follow the traditional approach to funding expansion. Justify a need for expansion over a specific route, build the route, review the performance versus promises, and then identify the next corridor.

Sound Transit’s approach is to ask for huge sums of money first and then worry about how to spend it. When performance falls far short of past promises ask for more money.

  • After receiving $14.7 billion SOUNDTRANSIT wants $17.7 billion (2014$) more in 2016 for ST3 for a total of $31.8 billion(2014$) [a-i]
    • 5 times what Vancouver spent in providing 323,000 daily rides [a, d, i]
    • 10 times what Portland spent in providing 83,000 daily rides [b, e, i]

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 8.58.45 PM

Should we double our Sound Transit taxes so that they can spend another $17.7 billion (2014$) on light rail construction? This would give Sound Transit 5 times as much as Vancouver BC spent for their system which served 323,000 daily riders in 2014, and 10 times what Portland spent to building a system moving 87,000 daily riders.

Seattle Light Rail Moves Far Fewer Passengers per $ Spent on Construction

  • SOUNDTRANSIT spends more money to move far fewer people
    • I compare similar length systems from NW peer cities at their 5 year anniversaries to make an honest comparison
    • Vancouver,BC & Portland light rail systems compared [j-p]

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 9.05.14 PM

Sound Transit’s Performance Metrics

Sound Transit’s performance (riders per dollar spent) is worse than both newer light rail lines, such as the Vancouver Canada Line, which opened the same year as Seattle Central Link (2009), and the older 1st Vancouver and Portland light rail lines (1986). Comparisons are in inflation adjusted US dollars.


  1. from Sound Transit Light Rail Extreme Costs chart, Sound Transit Voter Approved Light Rail Taxpayer Funding , ref f) 2.9315 billion + ref. k)  billion 11.145 = $14.08 billion(2014$) spent and/or approved by taxpayers for Seattle Light Rail by 2008 before any lines were running and citizens could assess performance.
  2. South Frasier Blog, Tuesday, March 20, 2012, Cost of Skytrain from, “On Track: The SkyTrain Story.” See table.
  3. Sound Transit,  Sound Transit Quarterly Ridership Report. See table.
  4., “Transit Ridership 1989-2014” (Vancouver boardings)
  5. National Transportation Database Histrorical Data Files, TS2.1TimeSeriesOpExpSvcModeTOS-3 transit ridership numbers.xls,  spreadsheet UPT (Portland boardings). See table.
  6. 14.08 billion/1.649 billion = 8.54 tmes  Seatttle/Vancouver initial funding

  7. 14.08 billion/0.462 billion = 30.4 times  Seatttle/Portland initial funding

  8. (14.08 billion+15.0 billion) /5.84 billion = 4.98 times  Seatttle/Vancouver 25 year funding (14.08 billion+25.0 billion) /5.84 billion = 6.67 times  Seatttle/Vancouver 25 year funding

  9. (14.08 billion+15.0 billion) /3.10 billion = 9.37 times  Seatttle/Portland 25 year funding (14.08 billion+25.0 billion) /3.10 billion = 12.61 times  Seatttle/Portland 25 year funding

  10. from Sound Transit Light Rail Extreme Costs chart, SOUND TRANSIT Seattle Light Rail Key Facts & Data ref.g) Seattle Central Link Light Rail cost$97,714 (2014$/daily ride)

  11. Vancouver Canada Line Costs:   2.200 billion (2014$) / 110,260 daily boarding (2014)  = $19,956 per daily boarding (5 years after Entry in Service)
  12. Vancouver Skytrain (Expo lines) 1.939 billion (2014$) / 79,245  daily boarding (1991) = $24,476 per daily boarding (5 years after Entry in Service)
  13. Portland 1st Trimax Line: 426 million (2014$) / 18,796  daily boarding (1991) = $22,270 per daily boarding (5 years after Entry in Service)
  14. 2014 Daily Round trip Riders per $1 million (2014$) Non-recurring Cost
    Seattle Central Link = 1 /(2*97,714) = 5.117 daily roundtrip riders/ $1 million
  15. Vancouver Canada Line = 1/(2*19,956) = 25.4
    Vancouver Skytrain (Expo lines) = 1/(2*24,476) = 21.2
  16. Portland 1st Trimax Line = 1/(2*22,270) = 22.2

Sound Transit Inflated Light Rail Ridership Predictions and Underestimated Construction Costs to Obtain Funding

Sound Transit’s Broken Ridership Promises

  • SOUNDTRANSIT promised 1995 voters 105,000 2010 weekday rides
  • More per mile than all US light rail systems except Boston [a-f]
  • SOUNDTRANSIT says University link extension will carry 9 times as many riders per mile as existing System (by 2030) [g-k]

Rider Inflation

Sound Transit weekday ridership predictions and year end published values are inflated according to p. 15, in the, “Central Link Initial Segment and Airport Link Before & After Study Final Report, Feb 2014.” The report states that Sound Transit divides their annual riders by 305 to arrive at an average weekday ridership even though bus ridership numbers indicate that 333 is the appropriate number to use.

Sound Transit Cost Overruns and Missed Construction Deadlines

  • SOUNDTRANSIT Seattle Light rail cost for Sound Move proposal [l]
    • 1995 Voters approve $1.8 billion (1995$) for 21 miles light rail
    • 2000 costs increase to $2.5 billion (1995$) ” “
    • 2001 costs increase to $4.164 billion (1995$) ” “
    • SOUNDTRANSIT drops most expensive 1/3rd of Seattle line reducing 21 miles to 15.7
  • SOUNDTRANSIT Seattle Light Rail System incomplete 10 years after promised 2006 entry in service date
  • Costs per rider 2.8 times greater (2015) than amount used to justify funding [a, m, n, o]
  • SOUNDTRANSIT compares performance to updated cost & schedule numbers rather than data used to obtain voter funding
  • Public Relations campaign on website and in media falsely claims, “SOUNDTRANSIT Continues to build a track record of delivering major capitol projects on time and under budget.”

Sound Transit inflated ridership predictions and underestimated costs to sell light rail to voters. Now, however, we have the Sound Transit performance record to review before voting on the ST3 proposal to increase our taxes once again.

Replacing Express Buses with Rail Increases Travel Times

Seattle Central Link Light Rail between downtown Seattle and SeaTac Airport averages 24.8 mph, due to stops and a shared road on Rainier Ave. An express bus running from downtown Seattle to the Sea-Tac airport with no stops on a free flowing lane is much faster.

So where does Sound Transit mention this minor detail in their Public Relations campaign? They don’t. In fact Sound Transit advertising always shows Light Rail being much faster then the buses they replace.

  • SOUNDTRANSIT Seattle light rail increases passenger travel time compared to express buses on free flowing HOV lane [r-x]

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 9.31.36 PM

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 9.32.54 PM

Sound Transit spent almost $3 billion(2014$) to replace the 194 Express bus with a train which increases the travel time from downtown Seattle to SeaTac airport while leaving riders 0.4 miles from the airport terminal. The express bus left passengers across the street from the terminal building. It takes almost 50% longer to get from downtown Seattle to the airport counter at SeaTac using Central Link compared to the express bus during non-rush hours.

A train which makes 4, 5, or 10 additional stops is slower than an express bus running on a lane where traffic is controlled to ensure high speeds.

Since Sound Transit Light Rail is So Expensive What Alternative is There?

We can intelligently apply various levels of Bus Rapid Transit to vastly improve public transit service (speed, frequency and reliability) over 200, 300, or more miles of transit corridors covering every freeway, highway and major road in the Sound Transit taxing district at a fraction of the cost of Seattle Light Rail.


  1. Sound Transit, “Sound Move — The 10-Year Regional Transit System Plan As Adopted May 31st 1996,”
    Table 16:Rail station boardings:Seattle to SeaTac light-rail line 105,000 daily boardings, 32 million annual boardings by 2010
    Sound Move includes 25-miles of a starter light rail system
    25-miles total – 1.6 miles Tacoma = 23.4 miles Seattle (a minimum of 21 miles promised for Seattle)
    ten-year implementation-“RTA is committed to the entire system being completed and operational within 10 years,” (2006)
    “Sound Move is based on extremely conservative cost and ridership assumptions”
    Table 18: Farebox recovery: Light Rail 53% (2010)
  2. Voters promised 105,000 riders/day / 21 miles = 5,000 riders/day per mile
  3. “2006 Service Implementation Plan,” Sound Transit, April 5, 2006, pg. 72. 35,821 weekday riders, / 15.7 miles = 2,282 weekday riders/mile
  4. “2009 Service Implementation Plan,” Sound Transit, May 28, 2009, pg. 121. 29,467 weekday riders, / 15.7 miles = 1,877 weekday riders/mile
  5. 2010 National Transit Database, 7.831 million trips 7.831 million trips / 305 weekday factor / 15.7 mile = 1,635 weekday riders/mile
  6. Wikipedia, “List of United States light rail systems by ridership
  7. University Link Extension, Sound Transit website predicts 71,000 new riders for 3.15 miles by 2030, $1.9 billion cost year of expenditure
  8. 71,000 riders/3.15 miles = 22,500 weekday riders per mile Sound Transit Projections
  9. Sound Transit 2015 annual ridersfrom Sound Transit Light Rail Obscene Costs , Sound Transit Seattle Light Rail Key Facts and Data, ref. f) 11,707,604 2015 Central link boardings 11.707 million 2015 riders / 305 = 38,3833 weekday riders
  10. 38,383 riders/15.7 miles = 2,445 weekday riders per mile  Sound Transit Actual (2014)
  11. 22,500/2,445 = 9.2
  12. FindLaw website, SANE TRANSIT v. SOUND TRANSIT,decided March 4, 2004 by the Supreme Court of Washington State
  13. Progress Report Link Light Rail, March 2015, Sound Transit, 3.15 miles, $1.948 billion
  14. Cost per mile as of 2014
    from Sound Transit Light Rail Extreme Costs , Sound Transit Voter Approved Light Rail Taxpayer Funding ,
    ref. e) 2.835 billion (2014$) / 21.0 miles = 135 million (2014$)/mile: Promised
    ref. f) 2.9315 billion (2014$) / 15.6 miles = 188 million (2014$)/mile: Reality (before University Link)
  15. Cost per mile as of 2016 (including University Link)
    (2.9315 billion (2014$) + 1.948 billion (year of expenditure))/ 15.6 + 3.15 miles = 260 million (2014$)/mile
  16. Cost per daily boarding 2014
    Promise: 2.835 billion(2014$)/(32 million rides/year)*(365 days/year)=$32,337 (2014$/daily ride)
    Reality: 2.9315 billion(2014$)/(10.9 million rides/year)*(365 days/year)=$97,714 (2014$/daily ride)
  17. Cost per daily boarding 2015 & fare recovery from Sound Transit Light Rail Extreme Costs , Sound Transit Seattle Light Rail Key Facts and Data, ref. f) 31% fare recoveryref. g) $91,393 (2015$/daily ride)
  18. 29 mins King Count Transit 194 Express bus schedule, 2008
  19. 38 mins SeaTac to Westlake,Link weekday schedule, effective Sept 26, 2015 – Mar 25, 2016
  20. Figure 1, Average airport walk speed 265 feet/min, Young, Seth B,Transportation Research Record, 1674, “Evaluation of Pedestrian Walking Speeds in Airport Terminals
  21. 0.4 miles from Light rail stop to airport terminal,
  22. 0.4 miles* 5,280 ft/mile /265 feet/min = 7.97 mins to walk from Sound Transit Rail Station to Airport Terminal, (ignores elevator or escalator travel time)
  23. 200 feet estimated walking distance from ground transportation stop to airport terminal building
  24.  200 feet/265 feet/min = 0.75 mins (ignores elevator or escalator travel time.)

BRT When Costs Matter

The Washington Policy Center estimated that the proposed Sound Transit ST3 $15 billion tax hike will raise yearly transportation taxes an additional $542 per average household (by 2018). Most of the money is so that Sound Transit can move more express bus passengers to rail for about $180,000 per daily round trip rider, in addition to the normal operating losses (fares covered 31% of operating costs in 2015). Cost calculations for the latest proposal are being worked out.

There is, however, an alternative which few people have experienced in the US that can easily reduce the insane cost of Sound Transit Light Rail while providing more convenient service. It’s called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). (RapidRide is NOT BRT) BRT began as a lower cost alternative to heavy rail construction in the developing world in the 1970’s. More recently it has spread to the developed world in response to the absurd increase in light rail construction costs.

A Brief History of Modern Light Rail

From Low Cost to High Cost Low Capacity

  • The term light rail first appeared in 1970’s to describe modern streetcars which were often larger and slightly faster than their predecessors.
  • The light in light rail refers to the system’s lighter load capacity than heavy rail’s.
  • Light rail vehicles may share streets with autos which limits the trains’ length and the headway between them.
  • Modern light rail began in 1981 San Diego as a lower cost rail option [a-c].
    • Heavy rail costs had reached prohibitive levels ($260 million/mile in 2014 dollars) and San Diego needed other options.
    • San Diego built a 13.5 mile trolley for $16.6 million/mile.
    • As other cities noticed this lower cost, a light rail building boom ensued.
  • Costs increased, however and soon we had High Cost Low Capacity Light Rail
    • In response many cities built Bus Rapid Transit systems to economically improve service
    • Rail envy drove other transit agencies to ignore horrible economics and keep pursuing light rail.
  • Seattle’s SoundTransit is the poster child for high cost low capacity light rail [d-f].
    • SoundTransit’s Central Link cost $600 million/mile (2014 dollars).

While Sound Transit is totally focused on building rail at any cost rather than moving the most people for each spent taxpayer dollar the birth of modern light rail was ironically driven by city planners in San Diego trying to lower the cost of rail using an abandoned freight rail line.

Since Light Rail equals low capacity why is Sound Transit spending 10 to 40 times as much per mile as San Diego to build a low capacity transit system?

The Birth of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

BRT is rail on tires to reduce costs

Out of control heavy rail construction costs lead to the birth of lower cost (and lower capacity) Light Rail Transit (LRT). The explosion of light rail construction costs, which Sound Transit epitomizes, has led to a similar growth in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

  • BRT duplicates heavy rail characteristics to reduce travel time [g]
    • Dedicated bus lanes
    • Off board fare collection
    • Platform level boarding from stations
    • More doors on bus to speed boardings
    • Traffic signal priority
    • Passing lanes at stations for express buses
  • Began in Curitiba, Brazil (1974) [g]
  • 186 Cities implement some version of BRT in first 4 decades [h]
    • 386% growth in number of systems in last decade
    • 31.7 million daily boardings (2014)
  • King County RapidRide is NOT BRT
    • RapidRide lacks basic aspects of BRT system to reduce travel times


  1. San Diego Gets an Old-Style Trolley, The New York Times, July 26, 1981
  2. $86 million(1981$) /13.5 miles = $6.4 million(1981$)/mile
  3. $6.4 million(1981$)/mile * (2.6 2014$)/(1981$) = $16.6 million(2014$)/mile
  4. Sound Transit Light Rail Extreme Costs chart, Sound Transit Central Link Sets Record for Most Expensive US Starter Light Rail System, ref. p) Seattle Central Link Light Rail cost $188 million(2014$) /mile
  5. Sound Transit, Progress Report Link Light Rail, March 2015, 3.15 miles, $1.948 billion
  6. $1.948 billion / 3.15 miles = $618 million/mile.
  7. Bus Rapid Transit, Wikipedia.
  8. Bus Rapid Transit Nearly Quadruples Over Ten Years,” Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, November 17, 2014.

Bus Rapid Transit Has Higher Capacity then Light Rail

Calculating Transit System Peak Hourly Passenger Capacity

  • Peak Passenger Capacity = vehicle(s) load x frequency
  • 1 train with multiple cars can carry more passengers than a single bus
    • Light Rail: 4-car Seattle: (296 seated + 296 standing) [d,e]
    • Double Decker bus: 77 seated + 18 standing [f]
    • Sound Transit’s light rail capacity depends on making riders stand
    • Making passengers stand doesn’t encourage regional trips (longer distance ridership), like to Everett.
    • These numbers account for North American standards of personal space.
  • But dedicated bus lanes can support much higher frequency than rail
    • 360 buses per hour is a max design frequency for a dedicated bus lane [a]
      Holland Tunnel (NYC) handles up to 730 buses/hr per lane [b]
    • 30 trains per hour typical design value for rail [c]
While a multi car light rail train can carry more passengers per driver a dedicated bus lane can carry far more passengers because a bus stopping at a station to unload and load passengers does not stop the flow of buses passing that station. (assuming passing lanes at the stations)

There are no passing lanes for metro rail systems, although a handful of larger heavy rail systems have dual tracks on certain sections, such as Chicago and New York. This means that a single train delay in unloading passengers at one station can disrupt an entire route.  To avoid this rail systems rarely run trains more frequently than every 2 minutes compared to the proven 10 second headway for full BRT systemsBrisbane, Australia ran 295 buses per hour through a single bus lane on their Bus Rapid Transit System back in 2013, while Guangzhou, China was up to 350 buses per hour, validating the 10 second spacing.

Dedicated bus lanes can move more passengers than a light rail line

  • Seattle Light Rail has less capacity than a dedicated bus lane [g-i]
    • Up to 66% less seated capacity compared to bus [i]
    • Up to 48% less total capacity compared to bus [k]
    • (based on SOUNDTRANSIT load standard limits)

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 5.09.21 PM

How do you feel about spending hundreds of millions of dollars per mile for a light rail system which has less capacity then a dedicated bus lane costing far less? Would you prefer standing in a train for an extra 10 minutes to sitting in a double decker bus during a 30 minute commute from Everett to Seattle?


  1. Wikipedia, “Bus rapid transit
  2. Samuel, Peter, “Busway vs. Rail Capacity: Separating Myth from Fact,” February 8, 2002, p. 4
  3. Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual 2nd Edition, “Part 5 Rail Transit Capacity,” p 5-51.
  4. Wikipedia, “Link Light Rail” 200 passenger car capacity with 74 seats support 4-car trains, 4*74 = 296 seated passengers per train
  5. Sound Transit, “DRAFT 2016 Service Implementation Plan,” October 12th 2015,p 117, Table 17 – Standing Time Corrective Action Priority for Rail Modes
    Link load factor for over 30 minutes is 2.0 Which equals to a standee capacity of 296 passengers per train.
  6. ibid, p 116,
    Table 14. Load Factor Standards by Bus Type;
  7. ibid, p 117, Table 17 – Standing Time Corrective Action Priority for Rail Modes
    Link 2.0 load factor for over 30 minutes
  8. 1-way capacity equals number of sitting and standing riders times 30 trains/hr or 360 uses per hour. See 2nd table.
  9. Light rail capacity = 296 seated/train * 30 trains/hr = 8,880 seated per hour = 8,880 standees/hour
  10. (light rail seated)/(bus seated capacity) = 8,880/27,720 double decker = 0.32. 1-0.32=68% less seated capacity
  11. (light rail total)/(bus total capacity) = (8,880+8,880) /(27,720+6,4380) double decker = 0.52, . 1-0.52=48% less total capacity

Snohomish County’s SWIFT is a local example of BRT Lite

SWIFT exemplifies cost driven intelligent transit

  • Swift I is Bus Rapid Transit Lite implemented in Puget Sound
    • Lite version includes least costly aspects of a true BRT system
    • 3 year construction time
    • 16.7 miles between Everett & Aurora village on
      SR99 + 16 stations each direction
    • $32 million (2014$) = $2.0 million/mile [a,b]
  • Swift I Performance (2014)
    • 20% faster compared to 101 bus [c-e]
    • 12 minute to 20 minute frequency [f]
  • Snohomish County voters approve Swift II Nov 2015
    • 12.5 miles from Canyon Park to Boeing Everett Plant
    • $42 – 48 million (2016$) [f]
  • SOUNDTRANSIT (ST3) High Capacity Transit Study
    • $4.5 to 5.0 billion to reach Boeing / Everett with rail [g]

Community Transit collects taxes to provide transit services for Snohomish County residents. In addition to local bus service, they provide commuter services under contract to Sound Transit.

While Sound Transit was was spending $188 million(2014$) /mile on their Light Rail system, Community Transit was dramatically improving the rider experience down State Route 99 (Aurora Avenue) in Snohomish County. For $2 million(2014$)/mile the Swift BRT “lite” reduced run times 20%, and increased frequency to the levels of Seattle making public transit a viable option for car owners. I use the term, “lite,” since this is not a true BRT system, although it skillfully implements the most cost effective aspects of BRT to improve passenger service.

Snohomish County residents recently approved a sales tax hike for Swift II which will provide frequent and much faster service to another highly congested travel corridor ending at the Everett Boeing Plant. Sound Transit’s proposal to bring light rail past the plant and on to downtown Everett, would cost 100 times as much.

Swift BRT Lite 13 Times Cheaper per Ride (94 Times Cheaper per mile) than Central Link Light Rail and has a similar max speed


Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 5.45.27 PM

Sound Transit Central Link Light Rail and Swift BRT “lite” have similar top average speeds which shows that trains are no faster than buses given a free flowing traffic lane.

Swift demonstrates what can be accomplished when your total focus is on improving transit quality at the least cost to your customer. To put the cost into perspective the money spent for 1 mile of the University Link would have paid for 150 miles of Swift II.

If a Swift BRT lite system can provide such a dramatic improvement in the factors driving ridership, travel time, service frequency, at a small fraction of the cost of Light Rail, why aren’t we duplicating this over every major transit corridor?

Sound Transit misrepresents BRT to justify light rail

Sound Transit Claims a BRT which would duplicate SWIFT would cost 20-27 times more (4-7 times per ride) and be 50% slower.

    • SOUNDTRANSIT Option E BRT route duplicates much of Swift I route
    • Community Transit built Swift I for $32 million (2014$)
    • SOUNDTRANSIT proposed BRT system would cost $540 to $740 million [p]
    • SOUNDTRANSIT‘s uses these claims regarding BRT to justify light rail [q-s]
    • BRT system costing 20 to 27 times (4 to 7 times per ride) as much as Swift I bus system would increase travel times up to 50%
    • Swift I carries 5,500 weekday riders with 15 buses ($15 million) [e, t]
    • $45 million of buses 4 minute peak frequency = 16,500 daily riders [u]

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 6.28.54 PM

Higher transit system ridership drives down costs per rider, while spending more money allows you to increase transit speeds by adding separate bus lanes or making road improvements.

Sound Transit claims that a BRT system running along the same corridor as the existing Swift bus, which is a cheap knockoff of a true BRT system, carrying more riders would cost more per rider served and run slower.

How can a full BRT system built with an additional 1/2 to 3/4 of billion dollars to improve speed, which carries more riders, cost 4 to 7 times as much to build per rider and run slower?

Bogota BRT: Providing 2.4 Million Rides per Day

After reading about the legendary performance of the Bogota, Colombia Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system for a decade I headed down there to see it first hand in 2011. Legendary performance means low cost per rider and large travel time reductions.

Bogota has the population density and proven ridership patterns to justify a heavy rail system. The high cost of rail, however, would have limited their ability to improve service over the vast majority of a 610 square mile service area so their mayor pushed through a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system instead. The system which is called Transmileneo became the gold standard in BRT for the vast improvement in transit travel times, huge ridership numbers, and low construction cost per passenger.

The Bogota Transmilenio has received a huge amount of attention for it’s economic performance and ridership numbers relative to a heavy rail system Medellín opened around the same time. Bogota’s published construction cost numbers for phase I of their BRT system was less than 1/10th the construction costs for the Medellín metro leading to claims for a 10 to 1 cost advantage for Bus Rapid Transit compared to heavy rail. Meanwhile, the Bogota BRT system soon carried twice the riders as the metro system dispelling the myth of low capacity bus.

The biggest challenge Transmilenio faces is overcrowding with 2.4 million daily weekday boardings (2014). The main line is maxed out with a peak ridership in one direction at some stations of 45,000 riders per hour. The 45,000 riders are carried by 2 lanes of buses which is often missed.

While there have been discussions about building a HEAVY Rail (not Light) system in the downtown at a huge cost, some are concerned about the increased travel times from losing express buses. BRT systems are built around express buses to minimize travel time.

While today their are multiple BRT systems carrying 1, 2, or 3 million riders per day for a comparable cost, Transmilenio’s place in history as the first big city application to catch the world’s attention is undeniable.


  1. Wikipedia,  Swift Bus Rapid Transit, Cost $29 million (2009$), 1,557,404 (2014) boardings, 16.7 miles

  2. 29 million (2009$) * 1.10 (2014$)/ (2009$) = 31.9 million  (2014$) 31.9 millions (2014$) / 1,557,404 (2014) boardings * 365 days / year = $7,476 (2014$)  per daily boarding

  3. Route 101 Aurora Village to Mariner Park & Ride Weekday Schedule, Community Transit
    Hwy 99 & Airport Rd to Aurora Village: lv 5:24 ar 5:49 travel time = 25 mins (min time)
    Hwy 99 & Airport Rd to Aurora Village: lv 8:20 ar 8:55 travel time = 35 mins (max time)
  4. Swift Southbound to Aurora Village Weekday Schedule, Community Transit
    Hwy 99 & Airport Rd to Aurora Village: lv 5:21 ar 5:41 travel time = 20 mins (min time)
    Schedule does not list busiest hours.
    20 mins/25 mins = 0.8 = 20% less time
  5. Swift By The Numbers, Thursday, December 2, 2010, Community Transit Blog claims 20% faster

  6. Parsons Brinckerhoff (August 2014). “Executive Summary”. Community Transit BRT Corridor Planning and Route Definition Study: Boeing to Canyon Park (Report). Community Transit.”

  7. Sound Transit, ST3 CANDIDATE PROJECT: LYNNWOOD TO EVERETT LIGHT RAIL, 12/04/2015, shows Option 1 which pass the Everett Boeing plant for $4,460 to $4,969 billion

  8. Sound Transit Light Rail Obscene Costs chart, Sound Transit Central Link Sets Record for Most Expensive US Starter Light Rail System, ref. p) Seattle Central Link Light Rail cost $188 million(2014$) /mile

  9. Community Transit, Swift Southbound to Aurora Village Weekday ScheduleEverett to Aurora Village lv 5:00 ar 5:41 travel time = 41 mins (min time)
    Everett to Aurora Village lv 8:00 ar 8:51 travel time = 51 mins (max time)
    Swift speed = 16.7 miles / (41 mins/(60 mins/hr))= 24.4 mph
    Swift speed = 16.7 miles / (51 mins/(60 mins/hr))= 19.65 mph

  10. Sound Transit, Central Link Weekday Schedule, 38 mins Downtown to SeaTac Airport
    Central Link Speed 15.7 miles/(38 mins/(60 mins/hr))=24.78 mph

  11. Sound Transit Light Rail Obscene Costs chart, Sound Transit Seattle Light Rail Key Facts & Data, ref h) Seattle Central Link:  $97,714 (2014$)/daily ride 2014

  12. Sound Transit Light Rail Obscene Costs chart, Sound Transit Light Rail Funding versus NW Peer Cities, ref c) Seattle Central Link: 30,001 rides/day (2014)

  13. $1 million / ($97,714 / daily ride) = 10.23 daily rides/$1 million (Central Link)

  14. $1 million / ($7,476 / daily ride) = 135.1 daily rides/$1 million (Swift BRT)

  15. Swift 13 times cheaper per rider: 135.1 daily rides / 10.23 daily rides = 12x cheaper per daily

  16. Swift 90 times cheaper per mile:  188 million/ 2 million = 94x cheaper per mile

  17. Lynnwood to Everett High Capacity Transit Corridor Study, Final Report, July 2014,” Sound Transit, ST3 Option E calculations
    Ave Speed: 13.6 miles/ (50 mins/ (60 mins/hr)) = 16.3 mph
    Cost/daily ride: $540 million/18,000 daily riders = $30,000 to
    $740 million/15,000 daily riders = $49,333 / daily ride
    Cost/mile $540 million/13.6 miles = $39.70 million to
    $740 million/13.6 miles = $54.41 million / mile

  18. Cost difference between ST3 HCT and Swift ($/mile)
    $39.7 million / $2 million = 20 times or $54.41 million / $2 million = 27 times
  19. Cost difference between ST3 HCT and Swift ($/weekday rider)
    ($30,000 / daily rider )/ ($7,470 / daily rider) = 4 times
    ($49,333 / daily rider )/ ($7,470 / daily rider) = 6.7 times
  20. Swift Bus Rapid Transit Turns 6, Saturday, November 28, 2015, Community Transit Blog, 5500 daily riders

  21. 5,500 existing riders handle by 15 buses.  3 x 5,500 =  16,500 riders

What can you do?

Spread the word about Sound Transit Revealed and Smarter Transit if you found it helpful and are concerned about transportation spending priorities in the Sound Transit taxing district.

When your friend tells you how great light rail you can pull up my website on your smart phone and show them a few of my charts.

What we can do to provide an alternative travel option in Puget Sound?

  • Focus on meeting passengers’ actual needs to increase ridership
    • Reduce travel times
    • Ensure reliability
    • Increase frequency
    • Improve convenience
  • Pursue the cost effective solutions required to reach 3 million residents spread over our 1060 square mile service area
    • Use HOV system to keep buses, van and car pool traffic flowing
    • Add roadway and signaling projects to speed up buses, van and car pools on arterials
    • Add minimum stop high frequency express type bus service on major arterial corridors similar to CommunityTransit Swift
    • Duplicate improvements over hundreds of miles of roads to cover routes from where people live to where they work
  • Stop squandering $200 Million/mile or more on rail

In most travel corridors around Puget Sound public transit does not move a large enough share of travelers during rush hour to effect traffic congestion. There are, however, public transit options which could be implemented over a wide enough area to provide the convenience and travel times necessary to attract drivers from their car and provide an alternative. Fast and frequent public transit needs to run from where people live to where they work to make a dent in traffic. This means improving hundreds of miles of roads to keep the buses, van and carpools moving over arterial streets in addition to the freeways.

Providing an acceptable public transportation option for a significant fraction of Puget Sound residents is possible assuming we stop squandering our transportation funds on $200 to $600 million per mile Light Rail Systems and instead spend it on $2 to $20 million per mile road and bus route improvements which extend to all of our most congested roadways. The alternative is gridlock, which many of us already face, on top of sky high transportation taxes devoted to moving a tiny fraction of our express bus commuters to a train for some portion of their daily journey.

About me

My name is Mark Ahlers and I am a Technical Fellow (scientist/engineer) for a major company and a transit researcher and fact checker for

Growing up across the street from the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) and Northwestern Commuter Rail train tracks I developed a love of trains at an early age. My family lacked a car so I learned the value an efficient public transportation system and what matters to the riding public.

Early in my university career I considered focusing on transportation engineering, having been inspired by the San Diego trolley. Cost driven city leaders were building their light rail system at less then 1/10th the cost of a heavy rail system at the time (using an abandoned freight rail line), which initiated a light rail building boom.

While I never became a transportation planner, my interest in public transportation remains. I’ve tracked the public transit industry for the past 30 years and even traveled worldwide to experience the operations of award winning public transit systems.

Why I created this site

While preparing to attend a taping of a Town Hall on Puget Sound traffic congestion I was searching the Sound Transit website for information on their latest ST3 request for $15 billion (which has since increased to $35 billion in 2014$) to support further Light Rail spending I came across the following statement;

“Sound Transit continues to build a track record of delivering major capitol projects on schedule under budget.”

Being a mass transit enthusiast, I knew that the initial light rail construction Seattle voters approved had doubled in cost and still wasn’t finished 10 years after the promised 2006 completion date. This deception and difficulties I faced locating basic cost benefit data convinced me that Puget Sound voters needed easy to understand information regarding Sound Transit spending and alternatives.

Since I love riding, researching, and talking about the performance of public transit systems, creating a facts and data based website devoted to revealing Sound Transit Light Rail performance seemed like an ideal way to serve my community.

I hope that you will find the information on interesting, and that you will consider it when it comes time to vote on the ST3 tax increase in the upcoming November election.