it’s a plan – Seattle Transit Blog


“Jeff, those people on the train weren’t ‘passengers.’ They obviously weren’t commuting to work and so were obviously deadbeats because no one except employers paid for public transit and these people’s employers didn’t pay for them to go to baseball games . Not to mention that it’s Sunday.

“These are clearly ‘anecdotes’ and not worth paying attention to.”

Tom, I don’t know what percentage of paying passengers on Link come and go from sports games, or that’s the demographic that we’re spending $142 billion on.

But the recovery of the tariff box is a very important problem.

When ST – or any agency – formulates charges for link or transit, it must: 1. Accurately and honestly estimate future operating and maintenance (O&M) costs, although almost universally these costs are underestimated ; 2. determine fare recovery (passengers X fares paid and fare amount); and 3. determine the remaining unpaid percentage of operating and maintenance costs and recover these through general fund taxes. The simple rule is that O&M funding from all sources must cover O&M costs.

Since the agency obviously wants to pass on the levy, and general taxes are the most obvious to voters, the incentive is to reduce them by: 1. overstating fare clawback, either passengers or fares paid, because it’s like free money; 2. underestimating future operating and maintenance costs; or 3.
overestimating general tax revenue for O&M which often depends on economic circumstances, and things like a pandemic and inflation, and estimates of population gain and whether these new residents will be using public transit in higher percentages than in the past for this region.

40% was an unreasonable assumption of fare box recovery for ST (and no doubt included passengers traveling to sporting events). Metro’s assumption is 20%. Before the pandemic on the most popular Link line – UW to downtown – the fare box recovery was 30%. Even without a pandemic, we now understand that ST overestimated ridership and assumed a very high fare payment percentage due to commuter work and employers paying many of these fares (so no structural system of payment of fares such as turnstiles). Post-pandemic lines like East Link and Federal Way Link could see 50% of estimated ridership, much of that pandemic related, but largely due to overly “optimistic” estimates.

The build quality on Link seems poor so far. Line 1 is aging. Some things like the I-90 bridge could be problematic from an operation and maintenance perspective due to post-voltage and stray currents. There is refurbished DSTT1.

All of this means that ST will experience a shortfall in O&M revenue. How much I don’t know, but it was still likely with the 40% recovery assumption and inflated ridership estimates. The pandemic has only accelerated this problem, although federal pandemic stimulus funds have helped.

“Extending” ST taxes by five years does nothing to fill O&M budgets because these are “now”, not 25 years in the future (and does nothing for capital budgets either if l (project completion is extended five years along with taxes in a high inflation market. Issaquah in S. Kirkland didn’t get cheaper by moving the start and completion dates five years into the future) . It makes little sense to claim that the charges included operation and maintenance costs. We know that. But as the project cost estimates in the same levies, the problem is that the estimates were “optimistic” and then a pandemic happened.

Yesterday the Seattle Times reprinted an article from WaPo asking top employers to predict the future of work. The common theme across all five different concepts was far fewer commutes, which overall is a very good thing for workers and the planet (and a core part of urban planning in which a worker lives closer to home). work, but now not so much in an urban center). But this skews the ridership assumptions that ST is based on when these were inflated to begin with.

The other almost universal truth is that government agencies facing an O&M deficit – which they universally face – tend to focus all O&M revenue on immediate operations and maintenance. That’s why NY and DC’s systems need tens of billions of dollars in upgrades despite such busyness, and about $100 billion of transit infrastructure funding will just go to upgrading legacy systems that have fallen into disrepair due to mis-estimated O&M budgets because officials are never held accountable for mis-estimates and are often off to Florida with their pensions when shortfalls become apparent with old, run-down trains.

My humble suggestions to ST would be:

1. Implement an objective pricing system in stations such as turnstiles.

2. Stop building distant lines that ST knows had very optimistic ridership estimates before the pandemic, at least until we see actual ridership on the furthest lines that will be completed (East , Federal Way and Lynnwood Link).

3. Be honest about future O&M costs and general fund tax revenues allocated to O&M.

4. Find ways to close the gap, which are usually: 1. higher tariffs; 2. lower costs (frequency or automation, or lower CBA costs, although this is difficult in a high inflation market); 3. more runners; 4. higher tariff payment percentages; 5. federal funding; 6. more general tax revenue, probably an O&M tax.

It really has nothing to do with whether the runners are white-collar, blue-collar, or those who go to games. It has to do with the NUMBER of passengers and how many pay a fare, as well as the accuracy of future operation and maintenance costs which I am sure have been underestimated. The reality is that even with a 100% payout percentage on Link today and tomorrow, there aren’t the number of passengers that come close to the 40% fare payout rate, so figure out how to bridge that gap .


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