“I think Sound Transit has taken a lot of very good work on that to help minimize if not prevent accidents in the collective right of way. Fortunately only a portion of the light rail is operating in mixed traffic. Much of it is on its own exclusive right of way so we should not have a lot of that.”
As we discussed the new light rail line, I brought up the fact that many agencies across the country have seen tremendous surges in ridership completely eclipsing expectations when they open them. With the constrictions of the downtown tunnel, I wondered how Metro was going to handle that.
“We’re all aware of that, that most of the systems that have opened in the United States in recent years have been very large instant successes. So yes that’s going to be a concern,” Desmond says.
“Whether and how you can add another car initially actually affects the operation of the tunnel with the buses. And so that’s what’s going to make this system a little bit different in terms of managing demand. Now that said, our folks and obviously Sound Transit folks have looked very, closely at their expectations for ridership. How much additional capacity there still would be with the frequencies of service we’re operating to deal with, you know if it was 10 percent or 15 or 20 percent higher than expected? Would we be able to manage that?”
Desmond says they are reasonably comfortable with an initial ridership surge, including having timing built into the frequency to adjust for it. Booming rail ridership in effect means less buses in the tunnel.
“The key constraint, the tunnel. Other than that Sound Transit would have a little bit more flexibility to add service initially,” Desmond says.
I asked if that meant that someday the tunnel would be strictly used by for light rail and he admitted that it would. As part of Sound Transit’s Phase II expansion plan, the increased ridership from more light rail would put the buses back onto the streets.
Best of Times …
When I asked Desmond if he had any advice for other transit executives, he deflected the question as best as he could saying he’d rather hear from others instead of to try and give advice himself.
“We’re in the midst of a completely unique and totally unexpected set of circumstances we’re facing now. You know it’s a tale of two cities; it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times,” Desmond says.
“It’s the best of times with the demand that there has been for transit on the ridership side. It’s the best of times as the nation, particularly now with the new administration in Washington, D.C., has been very focused on climate change and managing carbon to the extent that federal legislation eventually moves toward pricing carbon, whether it’s through say a cap-and-trade or through basically a carbon tax. The president has proposed in his budget a cap-and-trade system.”
Desmond says he thinks transit can play a big role in a system that uses carbon pricing because it will change the way people think about how they use their cars and how roads are built.
“I think that suggests an even greater roll for transit in the national environment and our local environment for managing transportation, as well as energy and environmental policy.
“So it’s a really fascinating time to be in our business, but we’re also facing these huge financial deficits. So how we balance those two things, how we work with federal legislators to continue to put transit at the forefront as a valuable asset going forward to the success of this country and success of our urban areas and success even of our suburban areas and get it to a place where it is viewed as being important even from a funding side as a general highways type program.
“That plays itself out in the federal environment that certainly plays itself out in a state and local environment here in Washington and I think it probably plays out as well in other communities,” Desmond says.
“My advice is how we work through this conundrum in the near term will have a lot to do with where we go in the future.”