Sound Transit spent more than $20 per passenger on planning, crowd control, entertainment and souvenirs celebrating the March 19 opening of two new light-rail stations.
The commemorative Sound Transit tote bags cost nearly $28,000. The chrome-colored paper trains, almost $5,000. Wallets, fare-card holders and lanyards for VIPs and others who won rides on the first few trains to and from the University of Washington, more than $13,000.
In all, taxpayers spent $858,379 for Sound Transit’s March 19 grand-opening party for the Capitol Hill and UW stations.
It was a big celebration. Some 30,000 people boarded trains there, to see how the UW connection could help them beat gridlock.
Among the party expenses
• Crowd management: $209,436
• King County Metro bus shuttle: $7,820
• Photographer: $4,950
• Commemorative ORCA cards: $4,350
• Capitol Hill Farmers Market costs, including permits: $4,005
• Sign-language interpreters: $2,050
• Buttons: $3,100
• Paper trains: almost $5,000
Source: Sound Transit
Most of the money went to planning or logistics: crowd management ($209,436); police overtime ($29,520); and event management ($260,200), which included planning over the course of a year. An additional $130,198 was spent for an ad campaign on radio, the Web, print, billboards, movie screens and gas pumps.
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Sound Transit managers say they’re already recovering the investment, because since the opening, ridership has brought in $1 million more in fare revenue than predicted.
“The launch of a system is a key moment to establish its presence and benefits to a population, so we really wanted to come out of the chute with high ridership,” said spokesman Geoff Patrick.
“It’s as though they’re dealing with play money,” said Smarter Transit co-founder Maggie Fimia, whose group opposes the regional light-rail plan. The organization gathered cost breakdowns for Sound Transit’s party through a state open-records act request.
“Supposedly the riders are there. That’s why they built these stations, that’s why they build light rail,” Fimia said. “So you actually have to throw a big party to get them to show up? It doesn’t make sense.”
To celebrate another transportation milestone, the opening of the new Highway 520 floating bridge, the Washington State Department of Transportation found private funders to pay for much of that party. The state says it spent $750,000 for the April 2 event, with $650,000 of that paid through sponsorships headlined by Delta Air Lines and Microsoft. There were also entry fees for a fun run and bicycle ride.
“The main reason was not to have a high burden on the taxpayers,” said spokesman Steve Peer.
The state spent $60,000 on Metro Transit buses to shuttle people to and from the bridge, while Sound Transit spent $7,820 on bus shuttles between the Northgate Transit Center and UW Station.
Sound Transit considers grand-opening parties to be normal marketing, and therefore didn’t seek private money, Patrick said, though Seattle Central College spent $40,000 for ads that remained in the Capitol Hill Station.
Any exact ridership dividend — how much of that $1 million fare bump can be attributed to the March 19 party — would be hard to measure.
“Had we not planned for it, we would have had a very chaotic situation,” and that might have discouraged people from using light rail again, Patrick said, explaining the money spent on crowd control.
The $1.8 billion tunneled rail extension serves one of the West Coast’s most populated corridors. Service to the UW was approved by voters in 1996 but took two decades because of cost increases and alignment changes.
In their first three weeks, the new stations increased ridership on the entire light-rail line by about 25,000 daily passengers, to an average of nearly 60,000 passengers for the whole corridor from SeaTac to Seattle, including a high of 72,000 riders on April 8. That beat the projection of 51,800 daily boardings.
Fimia has long criticized Sound Transit spending, in particular its budget this year of $7.8 million to cover marketing, lobbying, communications and neighborhood outreach. The agency says it recoups $1.3 million from the ads it sells on buses, trains and at other facilities.
“I remember the opening of the Northgate Transit Center; they had some balloons, I think a microphone, coffee and some cookies,” said Fimia, who from 1994 to 2001 was a Metropolitan King County Council member. “When I was in office we just struggled with every dime, because we knew that was money taken from transit service.”
Another party is planned in September, when the Angle Lake park-and-ride station opens 1½ miles south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Sound Transit has routinely boosted advertising in years when stations open, according to figures Patrick furnished Thursday. When the first 16 miles of light rail opened in 2009, ad spending increased by $500,000 that year to a total $2.2 million, then dropped to $1.8 million for 2010. This year’s ad budget of $ 1.8 million is $400,000 higher than in 2015.