Councilmember Rod Dembowski got the King County Council to unanimously agree to raising the farebox recovery target in Motion 2014-0207 passed Monday. Stating the goal doesn’t automatically result in collecting that amount of money, but hope-based planning is apparently fashionable on the Council given the unfunded nature of Ordinance 2014.0210.2.
The traditional way of calculating farebox recovery does not subtract out the costs of fare collection, including those associated with bus delay. To be specific, Metro’s definition of farebox recovery is “the ratio of bus fare revenue to bus operating costs”. So, Metro might find ways to increase farebox recovery by 4% of total costs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the amount of funding available to run Metro will go up by 4%.
The council seems fixated on the idea that increasing fares will increase farebox recovery. That’s true up to a point, but declining ridership may reduce it instead. Page 46 of the appendices to the report of the Low-Income Fare Options Advisory Committee showed how steep the ridership drop might be among various rider groups with quarter-indexed fare increases.
A more direct way to improve the farebox recovery rate is to cut under-collecting routes and runs, and add service to fuller, higher-collecting routes. In other words, to follow Metro’s Service Guidelines. However, if farebox recovery has the same priority as ridership when restructuring service, that further imperils routes that have the highest percentage of low-income riders. That would be a Title VI issue.
One of Mr. Dembowski’s ideas that should get a serious look is to increase the monthly pass multiplier, from the current 36 times the single-ride rate, to 40 times the single-ride rate. The 36 multiplier is a legacy of the age of magnetic-tape monthly-pass cards. The cards were Metro’s best tool for speeding up boardings at the time. Now, monthly ORCA passes and e-purse are equally great for minimizing fare payment delays. But if Metro increases the multiplier to 40, one would hope those who choose to switch to paying per ride would choose e-purse. With the $5 cost of getting an ORCA (by far the most expensive bus smart card in the country after rebates), the existence of seemingly-unexpiring paper transfers, and identical cash and electronic fares, that is a bad bet.
That leads me to my second point of agreement with Councilmember Dembowski’s proposals: eliminate paper transfers. Ideally, I’d like to see the low-income fare program implemented first. Of course, that means finding the money to implement the program. Eliminating the $4 million annual cost of printing and distributing paper transfers would be a start, but nowhere near covering the annual cost of the program.
The council has, thankfully, already moved beyond the philosophical debate about cash fare equity. If and when the low-income fare program begins, riders will have to pay electronically in order to get the reduced fare. That makes it more acceptable to raise cash fares for the rest of the ridership. Indeed, I would suggest that a cash fare surcharge would be more effective than a flat increase in increasing net fare recovery. Net farebox recovery calculations would include the cost of the bus idling while a cash payer spends an average of 4.5 to 6.8 seconds longer than an ORCA user (See page 17) to pay their fare. In high-volume areas like Downtown, each delay also impacts other buses and trains held up behind the cash payer.
Unlike most other suggested “efficiencies,” improving net farebox recovery would actually improve the rider experience by reducing travel time. It also creates savings that can (partially) offset service cuts. (albeit nowhere near Metro’s current deficit). Net farebox recovery would be a more useful measurement and planning tool than the traditional gross farebox recovery.