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Seattle, Washington/Seattle-Tacoma Sounder Commuter Rail

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Seattle-Tacoma Sounder Commuter Rail

Seattle-Tacoma, Washington

(November 1998)


Sound Transit (Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority) plans to implement an 8-station 40-mile Sounder commuter rail line between Tacoma and Seattle, Washington. The project would provide peak-period, bi-directional commuter rail service between downtown Tacoma and Seattle on existing Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) tracks. Planned improvements along the BNSF line will allow increased passenger rail speed and minimize conflicts with existing freight and Amtrak traffic. Express and local feeder bus service will provide access between commuter rail stations and other regional transportation facilities, including light rail, monorail, and ferry terminals. Sound Transit estimates approximately 12,300 average weekday riders on the Seattle-Tacoma Sounder line in 2020. Capital costs are estimated at approximately $401 million (escalated dollars), and annual operating costs are estimated to total $11.4 million (escalated dollars).

The Tacoma-to-Seattle line is Phase 1 of what Sound Transit proposes to be a 14-station, 82-mile commuter rail system. Phase 2 would extend the system south from Tacoma to Lakewood (8.2 miles) and north from Seattle to Everett (34.5 miles). Sound Transit estimates 18,800 riders on the full system in 2020. Commuter rail itself is only one element of Sound Transit's voter-approved ten year, $3.914 billion ($1995) Sound Move regional transit plan, which also includes implementation of a 23-mile light rail transit line between Seattle and SeaTac Airport; a 2-mile LRT line in downtown Tacoma; 20 new regional express bus routes; 14 high occupancy vehicle (HOV) direct access ramps (providing access to over 100 miles of existing HOV lanes); 14 new park and ride lots and 9 transit centers; and other service improvements.

Seattle-Tacoma Sounder Summary Description

Proposed Project Commuter Rail;
40 miles, 8 stations
Total Capital Cost ($YOE) $401.0 billion
Section 5309 Share ($YOE) $100.0 million
Annual Operating Cost ($YOE) $11.4 million
Ridership Forecast (2020) 12,300 daily boardings
3,300 daily new riders
FY 2000 Financial Rating: High
FY 2000 Project Justification Rating: Medium
FY 2000 Overall Project Rating: Recommended

The overall project rating applies to this Annual New Starts Report and reflects conditions as of November 1998. Project evaluation is an ongoing process. As new starts projects proceed through development, the estimates of costs, benefits, and impacts are refined. The FTA ratings and recommendations will be updated annually to reflect new information, changing conditions, and refined financing plans.


The RTA Board adopted the Sound Move regional transit plan in May 1996. Voters approved $3.914 billion in local funding for implementation of the plan in November, 1996. A Major Investment Study of Sound Move's services was completed in March 1997. Sound Move is included in the Puget Sound Regional Council's (the area's MPO) Transportation Plan and Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

Sound Transit's request to enter into Preliminary Engineering on the full 82-mile Everett-to-Lakewood commuter rail corridor was approved by FTA in March 1998. In 1993, the Regional Transit Authority (now known as Sound Transit) received a $1.9 million grant to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) on the 40-mile Tacoma-to-Seattle segment (Phase 1) of the line. The EA was completed and FTA issued a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) in June 1998. Sound Transit received FTA approval to enter final design in December 1998. Sound Transit is currently in the process of procuring locomotives and passenger coaches. Sound Transit plans to initiate revenue service on the Sounder Tacoma-to-Seattle line in late 1999. Sound Transit is continuing PE and undertaking a Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Lakewood-Tacoma and Seattle-Everett segments of the Sounder commuter rail project Sound Transit is anticipating a Record of Decision on these segments in the fall of 1999.

TEA-21 Section 3030(a)(85) authorizes the Seattle Sound Move Corridor, of which Sounder is one element, for final design and construction. Through FY 1999, Congress has appropriated $55.49 million in Section 5309 New Starts funding for this project.


The following criteria have been estimated in conformance with FTAís Technical Guidance on Section 5309 New Starts Criteria, and applies to the 40-mile Seattle-Tacoma Sounder commuter rail project. Information was provided by Sound Transit comparing the New Start to the TSM alternative. N/A indicates that data are not available for this measure.


Mobility Improvements

Rating: Medium

Sound Transit estimates the following travel time savings.

Mobility Improvements New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Annual Travel Time Savings (Hours) N/A 1.2 million

Based on 1990 US Census data, Sound Transit estimates that 630 low-income households are located within a ½ mile radius of the 8 proposed stations (representing 40.4 percent of total households located within a ½ mile radius of stations).

Environmental Benefits

Rating: Medium

The Central Puget Sound Area is classified as a maintenance area for carbon monoxide and ozone. Spot areas in the region are designated as non-attainment for PM10. Sound Transit estimates the following changes in emissions for the Seattle-Tacoma Sounder commuter rail. Note that it is estimated that the investment will realize a reduction in all pollutants as compared to the TSM except for VOC, which is expected to increase.

Criteria Pollutant New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Carbon Monoxide (CO) N/A decrease of 3 annual tons
Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) N/A decrease of 26 annual tons
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) N/A increase of 20 annual tons
Particulate Matter (PM10) N/A decrease of 1 annual ton
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) N/A decrease of 710 annual tons

Sound Transit estimates the following annual savings in regional energy consumption (measured in British Thermal Units Ė BTUs).

Annual Energy Savings New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
BTU (millions) N/A decrease of 9,130 million annual BTU

Operating Efficiencies

Rating: Medium

Sound Transit estimates a slight decrease in the systemwide operating costs per passenger mile in 2020 for the Seattle-Tacoma Sounder commuter rail compared to the TSM alternative.

Operating Efficiencies No-Build TSM New Start
System Operating Cost per Passenger Mile (2020) N/A $0.44 $0.43

Values reflect 2020 ridership forecast and 1997 dollars.

Cost Effectiveness

Rating: Low

Sound Transit estimates the following cost-effectiveness indices.

Cost Effectiveness New Start vs. No-Build New Start vs. TSM
Incremental Cost per Incremental Passenger N/A $27.89

Values reflect 2020 ridership forecast and 1997 dollars.

Transit-Supportive Existing Land Use and Future Patterns

Rating: Medium-High

The Medium-High Land Use rating reflects the fact that while existing densities surrounding proposed commuter rail stations along the corridor vary greatly, jurisdictions along the Tacoma Ė Seattle alignment are aggressively promoting mixed-use transit and pedestrian-oriented development in local land use plans and policies. Communities have been active in station area planning activities. Policies supportive of managed growth and transit-oriented development are in place at the State and regional level, as well as in jurisdictions throughout the Sounder commuter rail corridor. Each of the cities along the line have adopted comprehensive plans which comply with the State's Growth Management Act and support the Central Puget Sound region's VISION 2020 land use plan.

The project will serve several major event facilities, including Seattle's planned new sports stadiums and the Tacoma Dome. The station located in Seattle's South Downtown (SODO) area will serve an expanding employment market, and the Tukwila/Longacres station will provide access to a planned Boeing facility with 10,000 jobs.

Other Factors

Criteria for Full Corridor: Sound Transit also submitted to FTA New Starts criteria on the full 82-mile Lakewood Ė Everett Sounder commuter rail system. As compared with the TSM, Sound Transit estimates 2.9 million hours of travel time savings and a decrease in systemwide operating costs for the full corridor. In addition, Sound Transit estimates an improved cost-effectiveness figure of $20.20 for the full corridor, as compared with the TSM.

Multimodal Emphasis with Regional Integration: Sound Transitís Sound Move is a multimodal program of commuter rail, light rail, bus, and HOV systems connected to a network of park and ride lots and transit centers. Forty percent of projected riders will be on modes other than light rail. Sound Transit intends to integrate its services with the region's five other existing bus operators, the State ferry system, the operation of the State's HOV system, and other regional, interstate, and international services. By 1999, Sound Transit projects that the region's public transit riders will be able to ride regionwide on a single fare/pass.

Freight FAST Corridor Coordination: Development of the Sounder commuter rail service is being coordinated with the FAST Corridor project to add grade separations and other enhancements to improve safety, reliability, and the regionís ability to move freight to and from its Ports.

Local Financial Commitment

Proposed Non-Section 5309 Share of Total Project Costs: 75%

Sound Transit proposes to utilize $100.0 million (25 percent) in Section 5309 New Starts funds and $301.0 million (75 percent) in local funds for the Seattle-Tacoma segment of the Sounder commuter rail project. Sound Transit proposes $150 million in Section 5309 New Starts funds and $401 million in local resources to fund the entire Lakewood-Everett Sounder system.

Stability and Reliability of Capital Financing Plan

Rating: High

The projectís High capital plan rating reflects the exceptionally high level of local funding committed to implement not only commuter rail but the entire Sound Move program. Sound Transit's Sound Move program is supported by two local tax sources: a 0.4% sales and use tax, and a 0.3% motor vehicle excise tax, approved by the region's voters in November 1996. The taxes continue in perpetuity with no sunset provisions and are dedicated solely to Sound Transit projects. These tax sources have traditionally grown faster than the consumer price index. In 1998, Sound Transit expects to receive $175.1 million from the sales and use tax, and $44.5 million from the MVET. Growth in tax revenues from these sources has outpaced inflation, reflecting positive regional economic growth. Local tax revenues over the span of the ten-year voter-approved Sound Move transit plan are now projected to be $157 million higher than pre-vote estimates. Sound Transitís use of debt financing for all programs (light rail, commuter rail and regional express) is anticipated to be well under half of its legally available debt limit.

Stability and Reliability of Operating Finance Plan

Rating: High

The High operating finance plan rating reflects the dedicated operating revenues available to operate the entire Sound Move transit plan. Sound Transit has a dedicated revenue stream that is available in its entirety to finance Sound Transit projects; no revenues will be drawn from sources that are used to support existing transit services (local bus operators independently collect their own transit-dedicated sales taxes which are matched by locally collected motor vehicle excise taxes). Sound Transitís financing plan fully covers all operating costs, debt service and capital replacement costs following completion of the construction program. If no further major capital programs are undertaken by Sound Transit, it will be possible to reduce Sound Transitís local tax rates and still meet all on-going financial requirements.

Locally Proposed Financing Plan

(Reported in $YOE)

Proposed Source of Funds Total Funding
Appropriations to Date
Federal: Section 5309 New Start $100.0 Congress has appropriated $55.49 million in Section 5309 funds appropriated through FY 1999
Local: $301.0

Total: $401.0

Note: Funding proposal reflects assumptions made by project sponsors, and are not DOT or FTA assumptions. Totals may not add due to rounding.

[Seattle-Tacoma Sounder Commuter Rail Map (PDF)]

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