New index highlights impacts of high gas costs and potential savings from riding transit

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The bottom line of a new index unveiled today by the American Public Transportation Association: there’s never been a better time to climb aboard mass transit.

With skyrocketing gas prices, a Puget Sound commuter who drives a midsize car 15,000 miles each year can save more than $3,400 annually by leaving that car at home, or about $8,400 annually by taking public transit instead of owning that car. The index uses vehicle costs calculated by the American Automobile Association (AAA).

 “The recent surge in gas prices has hit our region’s commuters hard, but these figures released today show that transit is a solution to the high cost of gas,” said Sound Transit Board Chair and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

The potential savings for a local commuter are calculated using the 2008 AAA average cost of driving formula, which is based on variable costs and fixed costs.  The variable costs include the cost of gas, maintenance and tires. These costs that result in the potential $3,400 savings from leaving a car at home reflect a current regional gas cost assumption of $4.19 per gallon and a 23.4 mile-per-gallon assumption for a mid-sized car. The $8,400 figure for taking public transit instead of owning the car is derived by adding fixed costs including insurance, license registration, depreciation and finance charges.
Information on the APTA study is available at

This year, Sound Transit’s ST Express buses, Sounder commuter rail, and Tacoma Link light rail are expected to carry passengers 200 million miles. Assuming the price of regular unleaded gas remains above $4 per gallon, Sound Transit will save the region’s residents about $45 million in gas costs annually compared to if commuters drove mid-sized cars that distance. 

Sound Transit’s system of regional express buses, commuter rail and light rail currently carries about 57,000 riders each day, a number that will more than double following the 2009 opening of light rail service between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac International Airport. Construction of that light rail line is moving forward on schedule and is more than 90 percent complete. Expansion of Link light rail between downtown and the University of Washington is slated to begin this year and be completed in 2016. University Link is projected to increase the regional light rail system’s ridership to more than 114,000 a day by 2030. 

The Mass Transit Expansion measure that the Sound Transit Board voted to submit to voters last week would expand Sound Transit’s regional system of trains and express buses to serve an estimated 358,000 daily riders by 2030. The measure includes:

  • Northward expansion of light rail from the University of Washington to Northgate by 2020, with a further extension to Lynnwood by 2023.
  • Eastward expansion of light rail to Bellevue and onward to Overlake Transit Center in Redmond by 2021.
  • Southward expansion of light rail to Highline Community College by 2020 and Federal Way’s South 272nd Street area by 2023.
  • Major ST Express bus service improvements, including an expansion of 100,000 bus service hours for 2009, overall increases of 10 to 30 percent in key corridors, and bus rapid transit service on State Route 520.
  • Sounder Commuter Rail service expansions including a 65 percent increase in service between Lakewood and Seattle, with longer trains and more trips.
  • Improved station access: Funding to increase access to transit facilities in Auburn, Edmonds, Kent, Lakewood, Mukilteo, Puyallup, South Tacoma, Sumner, Tacoma and Tukwila. Projects will be tailored to the needs of each location and may include expanded parking; pedestrian improvements at or near stations; additional bus/transfer facilities for improved feeder service to stations; bicycle access and storage; and new and expanded drop-off areas to encourage ride-sharing.
  • Partnerships for expanded transit: Partnership funding for Eastside passenger rail on existing freight tracks; as well as for potential extensions of Tacoma Link light rail and projects in Bothell and Burien.
  • Planning studies: The plan provides funds for studies to evaluate further mass transit expansions in future phases. These studies will focus on future extensions from Lynnwood to Everett; the University District to downtown Seattle via Ballard; Burien to Renton; downtown Seattle to Burien via West Seattle; South Bellevue to Issaquah; and along the SR 520 corridor between Redmond, Kirkland and the University of Washington and further west into Seattle. Funds for preliminary engineering and right-of-way acquisition are included for the future continuation of light rail from Federal Way to Tacoma.