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The final $90m of the $501m, four-year Metro budget hole is covered by a 9% route-by-route service suspension.  As we reported yesterday, any potential savings discovered by the ongoing audit are likely to reduce this figure to as low as 4%.

The first important point is that since these reductions are “suspensions” rather than “cuts,” restoring them when revenue recovers will not be subject to the 40/40/20 rule, thus allowing relatively quick restoration of the status quo.

Here some details on the suspensions from interviews with both Kurt Triplett and Metro GM Kevin Desmond, after the jump:

  • The first thing to happen will be productivity improvements that don’t reduce revenue hours.  The example that kept coming up was reducing layover at the ends of each route.  Although cutting layovers will reduce reliability, and possibly lead to labor trouble due to shorter breaks, when the alternative is cutting trips it’s attractive to planners.
  • In each group of suspensions, the targeted routes will be selected according to existing subarea criteria (i.e. 62% West, 21% South, 17% East), with the least productive trips in each targeted first.  In other words, the trips suspended in 2013 will be more productive than those suspended in 2010 from the same subarea.
  • No route will be eliminated, or its path shortened, unless its route is a “direct overlay” of another route.  That means that certain express buses, like the 7X*, might be considered for elimination, as they almost entirely overlap others, like Route 7.  In Desmond’s words, “the lines on the map stay where they are.”
  • Although each route is intended to take an equal hit, the least productive trips will be the ones cut.  That will usually mean weekend, late night, or possibly mid-day service.
  • For routes with very small numbers of trips, a 9% cut (or whatever the final total is) will not be mathematically possible.  The methodology isn’t totally decided yet, but by necessity some of these routes will be cut by more than 9%, and others less.
  • Due to time constraints, the February 2010 reductions will be “administrative”, meaning there won’t be the usual multiple rounds of public comment.  In fact, Triplett asserts that “under current authority, Metro has the authority to moderate a route up to 10% without going back to the county.”  However, for obvious reasons they won’t use that power for subsequent rounds, and the February changes will go to the council.

When I got him on the phone, Triplett almost immediately launched into a defense of the “balanced” aspect of his plan.  He denied that he chose this approach “because it was the easiest”, and insisted that instead “it was the hardest choice.”

He believes that his plan is “best positioned for optimism” that revenues will bounce back and be augmented by the State :

This region is really poised to fracture over transit service… Everyone is trying to use to make a play to protect what they have…  It’s a recipe for disaster that will end us as a regional system.  [We should] unite and do something together rather than fighting over the transit scraps… [My plan is] much more flexible on the upside… A massive fight would prevent car tab restoration.

He also pushed back hard against the idea that productivity is the only responsible metric for a transit system:

What is the purpose of transit and what does it serve?  We want to maximize ridership, to serve commutes, balance productivity vs. transit-dependent riders… both ends of that scale are right… We cannot callously pick lives that win and lives that lose… you can’t use cost-benefit analysis as your only metric.

‘Low productivity routes’ are a euphemism for the transit-dependent poor.  It’s not about dollars and cents, its about people.

Finally, I asked Triplett how it impacted his thinking that both candidates to replace him (Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison) have suggested precisely that — cuts to low-productivity routes:

I have tried to balance the fact that I’m only going to be here for a while, but I am the Executive and I have to do what I think is right.. I believe that when they have all the information, they’ll moderate to my proposal.

Tomorrow: some closing thoughts on the Metro budget crisis and the Triplett plan.

*The 7X is my example, not Desmond’s; no one has actually proposed to cut the 7X yet.

15 Replies to “The Triplett Metro Plan (V): Service Suspensions”

  1. I wrote a response about other ways that service can be analyzed below but I agree with Triplett that the real take away is that metro simply needs better funding from a more stable taxing source. In the process of cutting transit service, advocates and politicians have keep the big picture in mind. Just like stealing money from a sibling does nothing to improve your combined wealth, sealing money from other subareas or routes doesn’t create a better transit system.


    Not that we need more ways to look at this but another way is the marginal cost of a run.

    Metro operates at a baseline level of service for most of the day. During the morning and afternoon peaks the marginal cost of additional service increases because you have to employ split shift drivers and have vehicles that are only used for a few runs a day, etc. This is because many of those peak hour trips are commuter routes with longer distances and low rider turnover along the route. They also employ a lot of deadheads.

    There definitely is a balancing point were less productive late night service for example is more expensive than high productive peak hour service. I have no idea where that is and for all I know it could be a pretty low threshold. Also commuters pay peak hour rates so that offsets some of the costs.

  2. The correct way to make cuts is not an across the board service cut but on the basis of equal subsidy dollars. More efficient (and crowded) routes would see proportionately fewer cuts.

    Mr. Parast – I could use better funding from a more stable tax base myself. Here’s an idea, how about the salaries of public employees!

    1. The across the board cut’s are the best way over the short term to divide this equitably. Lesser routes are going to shoulder a much greater cut in service than popular routes. The really popular routes are going to see only an decrease in service frequency from 10 min. to 20 min for a short period in the afternoon or evening. Small routes are going to see frequencies move from 1/2 hour to 1 hour headways. Riders on the outlying routes may see their work day stretched by an hour whereas someone in town will spend an extra 10-20 minutes running an errand, or more likely, simply shift their schedule slightly to adapt.

      Addressing area equity, fare structure, system efficiency, etc. are longer term issues that can’t be unilaterally decided by the interim County Executive before a budget needs to be prepared by November. The best it can do is put the agency on as solid a financial footing as possible and leave flexibility to address the more contentious issues by our incoming elected officials.

    2. I think the correct way to cut service is using a slew of measurement as well as social equity measures. No single measure can be used to measure the the many competing interests and goals of transit service.

      1. Adam,

        I think if someone were to write an “objective function” for Metro service, planners would be able to implement it. Unfortunately, that kind of specific instruction would have to come from the Council, which generally doesn’t write ordinances in math.

  3. I’m puzzled by this comment:

    ‘Low productivity routes’ are a euphemism for the transit-dependent poor. It’s not about dollars and cents, its about people.

    I get that there are outlying routes or Night Owl service that may have low farebox recovery but are really lifelines for low income folks to get to work…

    On the other hand, I also look at routes like the 7 and 120 and 358 that are extremely crowded at their current frequencies and run through low-income, transit-dependent neighborhoods.

    Why would one equally cut the hours on these routes and suburban middle- or upper-income routes? That doesn’t make good business sense, although it makes good political sense.

    1. Without really endorsing the point of view, I think the argument is that the one or two people on the iconic “empty bus on the Eastside” really have to use the bus if they’re willing to negotiate bad schedules and pedestrian-hostile suburban design to do so.

      If you’re taking the 222 in the middle of the day, you almost certainly don’t have the option of driving instead.

      1. I take the 222 on a regular basis. (I also currently drive it in the morning) I own 2 cars, 2 bikes, and have plenty of options. Heck, if there were two more trips on the 222 (one early morning, one in the early evening) it would be convenient enough that I could easily rely on it for most of my trips.

      2. Ooops… Submitted that comment too soon. I meant to add this:

        The problem with the 222 is that it’s the classic 2 seat-ride route. However, because of unreliability in the schedule, you can’t rely on connections to regional routes. Many of my neighbors love the 222 but they all have 1 seat rides on it (Microsoft & Downtown Bellevue).

        This gets me to Desmond’s quote of “the lines on the map stay where they are.”. I wonder about the wisdom of keeping one-seat routes like the 210, 268, 250, 252, 257, etc… In many cases, cutting these routes, while politically undesirable, would result in significant savings without too much inconvenience for many of the riders. You’ll lose some passengers who have other choices but you’ll maintain the coverage at a lower cost. You’ll probably increase productivity on routes like the 222, 271, 236, 238, and 249 which all overlap with routes that I have mentioned.

        In order for 2 seat rides to be palatable, however, we’ll need to preserve layover times, add signal priority for buses, bus lanes, automatic “holds” for transferring passengers, etc… Whatever it takes to make service more reliable so people can count on transfers.

        Obviously this only addresses Eastside routes. Seattle, with it’s very productive bus system, probably doesn’t have relatively easy choices like this. In Seattle, I still wonder whether addressing rampant fare evasion may result in enough revenue to make a difference.

      3. I am a regular rider of the 257 (it stops next to my house). If it goes away, Metro better coordinate the 236/238 with the 311, which usually arrives early and never holds at Brickyard or improve service on the 255. Although I could just walk to the 311 many others don’t have the choice.

        For personal sacrifices, I would give up the 257 in order to preserve early morning and late night service on the 255.

  4. Nobody is suggesting cutting hours equally. If you have a Seattle route with 100 hours service hours and a suburban route with 10 service hours cutting 5 hours of service from each would be a 5% vs 50% cut. If you make a proportional cut of 10% to both routes the service on the suburban route will be taking a much greater hit in frequency. The Triplett “across the board” plan really does hit the suburban middle- or upper-income routes harder than extremely crowded high frequency routes which are the core transit dependent ridership.

    And you can’t do it based on funding either. Although the suburban routes may be dismal in terms of cost per boarding and fare recovery the bulk of the operating cost for metro is those routes with the most service. Even though they recover twice as much at the fare box they constitute five times as much service (not actual numbers but representative). So you’d have to cut all the low ridership suburban routes entirely to achieve the savings needed to cover the revenue shortfall.
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

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