Sound Transit is negotiating with BNSF Railway in hopes of bringing all-day service to the Sounder line to serve fast-growing communities in Pierce and South King counties.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff is negotiating with BNSF Railway, to try to bring all-day service to the Sounder train line between Seattle and Pierce County.
Trains now operate during commute hours, plus weekend trips to sporting events in Sodo.
Transit managers are aiming to schedule longer peak periods, or even midday trains, to be funded by this fall’s Sound Transit 3 ballot measure. The “Holy Grail” is hourly service, said Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow, a transit-board member whose city is on the train line.
“It’s a fairly recent idea, a recognition that Sounder South has been such a success, that it’s a shame not to build on that, and use it more,” Enslow said.
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But long-term growth is also expected in freight, and BNSF, which owns the rail line, would be reluctant to guarantee so much passenger time that it compromises the core business of hauling crops, aircraft parts, oil and other cargo.
Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said BNSF is reviewing the Sound Transit proposal and would not provide other details.
The railway would almost certainly expect hundreds of millions of dollars.
Payments would cover not only the value of time on the tracks, but maintenance and signal improvements, to allow more capacity.
Demand is growing as Green River Valley cities such as Kent, as well as eastern Pierce County, emerge as refuges of affordable housing.
South-line ridership grew 15 percent, to an average 14,731 weekday boardings in first quarter 2016 compared with a year earlier. Some trains are standing-room only. (The north line from Everett to Seattle carried 1,561 riders a day.)
“The south Sounder service is growing in popularity in an area we know is going to be growing in population,” Rogoff said. “We want to make sure we can keep up with demand.”
Rogoff said negotiators are also exploring whether to build a third set of tracks along the regional mainline, to carry more freight or passengers. A project that huge would require funding from BNSF and the Washington State Department of Transportation. A third trackway would be necessary if transit trains run all day, he said.
John Niles, co-founder of Smarter Transit, which opposes the ST3 ballot measure, said it’s difficult to extend Sounder hours without creating delay for both freight and passengers.
“Passenger trains are short and fast, freight trains long and unscheduled. It’s just incompatibility,” he said.
Bus-rapid transit could supply enough all-day service for a lot less money, Niles said — and in fact, several Sounder stations are served by ST Express bus lines.
BNSF has proved to be a firm bargainer when it comes to renting space on its tracks.
And for the popular south line, Sound Transit is paying $185 million to BNSF to permanently add four round-trip trains between Seattle and Lakewood, approved by voters in 2008. The agreement will boost frequency in the far south corridor to 11 weekday round trips to Seattle. The first of these four round trips began in 2013, another starts this fall, and two more begin service next year.
The agency isn’t saying how much it is willing to spend this time, and you won’t find service promises listed in Sound Transit’s promotional materials.
“We’ve been purposely oblique,” planning director Ric Ilgenfritz told a state-appointed ST3 expert-review panel Monday. To divulge dollar figures would tie the transit agency’s hands in negotiations, he said.
Rogoff says the agency’s position is stronger than 2003, when leaders felt pressure to get a rail system started.
This time, the network has been established, and Sounder can still haul more passengers — to solve its most pressing need — even without buying midday access from BNSF, he said.
“If the price is too steep, we will walk away from this contract, precisely because we have ways of adding capacity,” he said.
A draft finance summary of the $54 billion ST3 plan shows $2.2 billion earmarked through 2041 to add capacity on Sounder South.
Most funds would build improvements under Sound Transit’s own control: longer station platforms, new railcars to allow 10-car trains, plus new access roads, 1,700 more park-and-ride spaces, and new stations at Tillicum and DuPont.
That’s in addition to $2.3 billion of investments overall for voter-approved projects from Everett to Lakewood, in 1997-2023. There are 3,741 parking spots now on the south line, with 2,000 more already scheduled by 2023.
Sound Transit also benefits by owning an 18-mile segment from Tacoma to Lakewood, Tillicum, DuPont and Nisqually, where Sounder and Amtrak Cascades can bypass the BNSF freight traffic that chugs around Point Defiance. Washington state is adding $151 million of its federal stimulus money to develop the bypass line, for additional passenger service.