Sound Transit's north commuter rail line serving Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds and Seattle carries a mere 1,125 passengers per day, with few near-term solutions to increase ridership.

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As commuter buses run standing-room-only on the freeway, the daily Sounder trains between Everett and Seattle are one-third full, serving a mere 1,125 passengers per weekday.

Its popularity falls short of the 2,400 to 3,200 rides announced when elected officials made a deal in 2003 to put transit trains on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight tracks.

Ridership is on an upward trend, by 19 percent last spring compared with a year earlier. That kind of growth is likely to reduce the subsidy for each person. But officials aren’t satisfied.

“At a certain point in the future, Sound Transit may have to come to terms with a reality that one of its services is not living up to a reasonable definition of viability,” read a recent report from the agency’s citizen-oversight panel.

While the south line has thrived — and added two stations this month to reach South Tacoma and Lakewood — the north line to Edmonds, Mukilteo and Everett has been unable to overcome the basic problem of having population on only one side of the tracks.

Supporters say the line is needed to help absorb long-term growth in Snohomish County, but for the near-term, its fortunes rest on adding park-and-ride slots. Reliability should improve because of a federal grant of $16 million to control mudslides, which canceled 70 train runs last year and 41 this year.

The oversight panel urged the agency to renew its marketing campaigns and to set a goal of doubling daily boardings to 2,400 by 2020. If efforts fail, service could be reduced to shift money to ST Express buses, the report says.

Transit-board Chairwoman Pat McCarthy, Pierce County executive, expects to give a formal response within weeks. “It’s painfully obvious the Sounder north ridership isn’t anywhere near where we want it to be,” she said.

The panel decided to scrutinize the project last year after two of its Snohomish County members were routinely cramming into standing-room-only buses, while train use dipped 4 percent, said panel chairman Stuart Scheuerman, of Sumner.

What happened?

Each passenger trip along Puget Sound, on what may be the nation’s most scenic commuter train ride, required about $29 in operating subsidies from taxpayers, as of 2010, because there aren’t enough people buying a trip. That doesn’t include the $368 million capital cost for track upgrades and easements, stations and trains.

Sounder North was based on an elegant premise, that it would make sense to put new transit rail on existing tracks. It would be a bargain, elected officials thought, while receiving encouragement from freight-rail managers.

Trackway rights and upgrades were estimated at $65 million on the 1996 Sound Move ballot measure. The south line opened in 2000, but transit managers still lacked a deal for the north line.

The deal was finally struck three years later, for Sound Transit to pay $258 million for passage rights and track improvements in the 35-mile north corridor, for four round-trip trains daily.

Transit-board members were conscious of the increased cost but approved the agreement, under a political microscope.

Boeing had moved its headquarters to Chicago, and politicians here were desperate to show they could get things done — and better trackway would help freight reach Boeing plants in Snohomish County.

Also, the transit agency wanted to show momentum, to help secure a $500 million federal grant toward building a light-rail starter line from Seattle to Tukwila.

Board Chairman Ron Sims, then King County executive, hailed the deal because Sound Transit gained track rights permanently, not just on a 40-year lease. “We’re not just saying that we’re going to have rail service in 2003, but in 3003,” he announced.

From the start, the line’s location presented challenges. The coastline route near Everett is less direct than highways, and in Mukilteo and Edmonds potential riders have to backtrack from their homes to reach the stations.

“I think the use of this train by people in Snohomish County will be so significant, I think we will be back at the table (to run more trains) in a couple years,” predicted Bob Drewel, then county executive and a transit-board member.

John Niles, an early opponent, now asserts that Sound Transit is violating state law that allows transit authorities to operate commuter rail when it is a “reasonable” mode, meaning costs are in line with buses and trolleys.

“Based on all I know, the thing ought to be shut down, and reallocate the resource,” he said.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick replies that studies in the 1990s did show the train comparing well to bus costs. He said road construction and land buys would be needed to create a bus network to the Edmonds or Mukilteo waterfronts that’s as good as a train.

What can be done?

Since the tracks aren’t near thousands of potential riders, the agency is trying to bring more riders to the tracks.

Sound Transit could synchronize train arrivals with ferry arrivals and departures, said McCarthy, to draw more riders from across Puget Sound.

Another answer could be more housing at the stations. Edmonds is considering a proposal to add 340 to 358 housing units near downtown. Local developers bought another parcel at a former Safeway store that could also be redeveloped.

Urban towers are out of the question, says Mayor Dave Earling, also a transit-board member.

Earling says the most urgent priority is to increase parking. There are only 156 spaces at Edmonds and 63 at Mukilteo now. Land negotiations are under way, he said.

“I’d like to see someplace between 75 and 100 parking spaces,” he said.

Edmonds Station parking slots are usually filled after only two of the four morning trains pass by, said Jill Shelton, of Lynnwood, boarding the train home last week. When not in a hurry, she drives to Edmonds Station instead of catching a crowded bus in Lynnwood for a ride down to her job in Seattle.

“I always go early,” she says, meaning the 6:41 a.m. train.

Shuttle buses have been suggested, but Community Transit has few dollars to spare, and proposes spending its money to increase its freeway bus trips to Seattle.

In the afternoon, the limited schedule may deter some riders. “A six or seven o’clock train would help,” suggests Adam Byers, catching the 4:33 p.m. departure from King Street Station. The last train leaves at 5:35, followed by a 6:50 p.m. Amtrak train that skips Mukilteo.

But later departures are difficult because BNSF wants to preserve time for freight trains using its mainline to Canada, and over Stevens Pass toward Chicago. CEO Matt Rose has predicted growth in container shipping and possibly coal trains.

To entice new riders, Sound Transit has tried direct mailings and distributed Sounder “kits” that include a ORCA fare card with $10 preloaded.

Scheuerman says doubling ridership will be hard, even if the economy booms.

“It is not efficient service now,” he says. “In 20 years it could be twice as good, three times as good as now, but in the near future we don’t see an increase in ridership.”

Sound Transit already plans to reduce its three-car trains to two on some trips late next year to save money.

If the four daily trains were cut to three, an idea the panel has broached, Sound Transit could save $1 million a year, or enough to add 10 to 12 one-way bus trips daily.

But if service quality is reduced, that might deter existing passengers and cause a death spiral, wasting the upfront investment.

“We don’t want to be penny wise and pound-foolish, even though $1 million is a lot of money,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think anybody on the Sound Transit board is ready to throw in the towel.”

The Everett line excels in one measure: On Seahawks game days, the trains carry as many as 3,000 riders.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom.