Study: Thurston County should focus on enhancing existing transit services; rail projects not yet feasible


The second phase of a Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC) transportation study recommended focusing on bolstering current vanpool and express bus options rather than pursuing light rail projects that do not have enough density to support the same.

While commuter rail remains a possibility, consultant Taylor Whitaker of Fehr & Peers said the population and employment densities in the region are not yet sufficient to justify light rail and any large-scale transit solution would require some collaboration between agencies to make it work.

At the TRPC meeting on Friday, Whitaker briefed the members on the High-Capacity Transportation (HCT) project Phase 2 study.

Whitaker briefly discussed the Phase 1 study findings. She said the areas of the highest activity density identified were downtown Olympia, northern Lacey, and the western end of Olympia.

Taylor noted that the Phase 1 study, conducted two years ago, found the number of employees commuting between Tacoma and Olympia, which totaled approximately 80,000, was at the low end of what could potentially support commuter rail ridership. The typical threshold for commuter rail viability is 100,000 employees commuting within a region.

While there is an opportunity for expansion for vanpool and carpool for Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) employees, Whitaker said Phase 1 recommended continuing to build out frequent bus and bus rapid transit within Thurston County. It also recommended expanding HCT to Pierce County.

Fehr & Peers consultant Taylor Whitaker recommended bolstering current vanpool and express bus options.
Fehr & Peers consultant Taylor Whitaker recommended bolstering current vanpool and express bus options.

Phase 2 study

According to Whitaker, the study explored options to enhance high-capacity transportation between Thurston and Pierce counties. She said the main objectives for Phase 2 are to take a more detailed look at the travel patterns and analyze commuter rail costs and operations. In particular, Whitaker said they focused on vanpools and rail.

Whitaker provided an overview of how far people can currently travel in transit within specific timeframes using existing transit options. She showed a map indicating the Puget Sound regional transit coverage area of 45 minutes, noting "Thurston County is relatively isolated in terms of regional coverage."

Breaking it down by individual stations, Whitaker explained that the 45-minute coverage area for Olympia station reaches most destinations. Lacey Amtrak connection could potentially be made to downtown Olympia but not Tumwater. The Martin Way station has a broader coverage area due to its location along the I-5 corridor, but north-south routing options are limited.

Whitaker discussed where people travel based on analysis of anonymized cell phone data through the Streetlight platform. She showed a map indicating some of the top intra-county travel trips with high activity density centered around Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey, Yelm, and Ground Mound/Tenino. That covers about 60% of inter-county trips and reaching the urban areas of the county.

"The purpose of this analyzing all of this data is to give us a better understanding of where people are traveling as we focus on how and where high-capacity transit can support the region," Whitaker said.

The consultant noted that most future growth is expected to occur in areas with connections to transit infrastructure. She pointed out the region will likely see increasing needs for services like commuter rail, bus rapid transit, or express bus as the population and employment centers expand near existing transit hubs.

On the point of rail transit, Whitaker reiterated that it is not an option nor to be expected in the future as it requires a lot of density. "But we are in the margins of commuter rail, which is something we identified in Phase 1."

She mentioned ECONorthwest and Parametrics conducted deeper analyses of potential rail alternatives.

Parametrics evaluated the capital costs, while ECONorthwest assessed operating feasibility.

Alternative A proposed service between DuPont and Lakewood stations, with two stops and roundtrip travel time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Alternative B also connected the same stations but with double the number of trips daily. Both alternatives aimed to tie in with Sounder service times to allow transfers.

Parametrics estimated capital costs of $400M- $428Mfor Alternative A and around $1B for Alternative B. ECONorthwest found Alternative A could see an annual ridership of 260,000 and B around 520,000 boardings based on operating plans. However, both were noted to be on the lower end of ridership scales for commuter rail systems.

Whitaker emphasized that the costs to implement either alternative would be high, while the estimated boardings were similar to existing bus routes. She stressed that any high-capacity rail option would require significant upfront investment.

Viable HCT options

Whitaker presented information on enhancing existing vanpool and express bus services as viable high-capacity transit options. She noted some key benefits, including reducing congestion and parking needs while conserving energy and resources.

Potential enhancement options included utilizing existing ride-matching services for vanpools statewide and leveraging these proven low-cost, high-revenue models. She also suggested that providing dedicated high-occupancy vehicle lanes could allow quicker express bus service. More frequent routes were proposed to decrease wait times.

During the discussion, Chris Stearns Thurston County Public Utility District (PUD) raised concerns that the study did not account for state employees who commute from places like Pierce and King counties to work in Olympia.

Chris Breiland of Fehr & Peers noted that in Phase 1 of the study, commuting from King County to Thurston County was investigated and found to represent about a 10th of the travel scale compared to Pierce County. While this flow exists, the consultant team determined the Pierce County connection was relatively larger and merited closer study.

Debbie Sullivan, representing Intercity Transit at TRPC, shared that many state agencies have transitioned to more remote work setups, with some consolidating offices and others moving to primarily virtual arrangements.

While the state remains a major employer, Sullivan told the TRPC members to pay attention to virtual work trends and consider the same when planning transportation needs.

Sullivan added that they should take a strategic approach and have partners, like legislators, commit to supporting expanded service levels through dedicated funding.

Whitaker agreed with Sullivan, saying virtual work has had a significant impact on commute patterns they are seeking to understand through projects like the household travel survey. She said it would be important to account for ongoing remote work trends in transportation modeling and analysis going forward.


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  • Southsoundguy

    Light rail is a scam.

    Wednesday, November 8, 2023 Report this