Access Service Area
Access Service Area (King County Metro)

On September 15 the King County Auditor completed their report to the  Council on their full audit of Metro operations.   The first part of the presentation was on September 1, and identified up to $23m in annual savings with little downside, about $60m that would cause pain for riders, and a one-time $105m surplus to get us through the recession.

The entire report is now online; passionate trolleybus defenders, which John and I are not, will want to poke holes in Chapter 4 of Report A (pdf).  There’s also a two-page summary of the whole audit if you prefer the Auditor’s writing to mine.

The chart below summarizes the entire audit.  For comparison, Metro’s deficit balloons to $142m in 2013.  It’s also important to recognize that these savings, if implemented, will take time to realize and not necessarily change the picture in 2010.

Click to Enlarge

Scott Gutierrez has an excellent roundup of politician reaction to the audit results.  Details about the last four lines of the  chart at left are after the jump.

The next step is the release of the Executive’s proposed budget on September 27th.  Triplett’s current plan assumed no savings from the audit (aside from the $105m fleet replacement surplus) but required $90m in suspensions over four years.  Furthermore, about $12m annually of the $51m the auditor claims in new fare revenue is built into the Triplett plan.  Aside from that, any audit savings would presumably be able to “buy back” service suspended in the plan.

ACCESS Paratransit

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires Metro to provide curb-to-curb service for disabled people unable to use Metro.  The service must cover all areas within 3/4 mile of a Metro route, and cover the same span of time as that route.  The fare can be as much as twice the fare on the corresponding bus route.  Metro spent $50.2m  a year on Access last year.

Metro, partly because of Transit Now, provides ACCESS service over a broader region and greater span of time than those requirements stipulate, at an annual cost of over $1m.  By going from door-to-door to curb-to-curb service, further unquantified savings are available.  However, most peer transit agencies provide door-to-door service.

The current $1 fare could legally increase to as much as $4 once the 2010 fare increase takes effect.  However, the audit only considered an increase to $3.50 and estimated that it would raise $2.8m annually.

The audit seeks to save $2.8m through productivity improvements, like more effective scheduling, dispatch, and routing.

Metro could save $2m annually by expanding the Community Access Training (CAT) program, in which it gives vans, maintenance resources, and driver training to human service agencies and gets them to transport their own clients.  These rides cost Metro about $4.80, rather than $39.17.

Maintenance, Emergency Communication

The auditor identified unquantified savings from relaxing some of Metro’s maintenance policies.  Basically, they propose a pilot program where Metro extends the service intervals on buses to see if that results in overall savings.

On information collection, and emergency communication, the auditor basically applauded Metro’s recent efforts to improve things.   The best idea I read was subscription-based, route-specific text message lists to notify riders.

And onebusaway is mentioned.  They’ve hit the big time.


The auditor noted that security expenditures have increased sharply over the last decade, although that partially tracks system growth and improved public perception of system safety.

Metro does a fairly poor job of coordinating employee leave (planned and unplanned) and thus making sure that every scheduled bus gets out on the road, also incurring expenses in overtime and so on.  The auditor recommended more use of part-time operators on weekends (currently not allowed) and to cover gaps in operator coverage.  They estimate annual savings to be at least $3.7m, assuming the Collective Bargaining Agreement can be altered in this respect.

41 Replies to “Metro Audit Report Complete”

  1. So Metro is going out of their way to say “well, we know why nobody that actually lives and works in central Seattle wants us to get rid of the trolleybus fleet, but we’ll talk about killing fish and making overreaching arguments that ignore the fluctuating cost of fuel”? Interesting.

    1. Where are you reading that? Metro’s policy != the auditor’s report. What matters is what the county council decides to do. Just because one auditor suggested replacing trolleybuses with hybrids doesn’t necessarily mean it’s Metro’s or the county’s policy or that it’s going to happen.

      1. Oh, I’m quick to substitute the auditor’s opinion for Metro’s own, since it’s a worst case scenario thing, and they’d try to duck behind the auditor’s opinion to avoid catching flack.

        Of course, the county council is likely to dismiss the idea since it’s political suicide, but I like to keep reality tempered by asking “what’s the worst thing that could happen”.

      2. Yes, It’s a political issue. Queen Anne, Madrona, and Mt. Baker residents won’t be happy and will be all over the County Council. They hate us when we run diesels on the weekends. I believe the 38 was planned to replace the Mt Baker neighborhood segment of the 14, but the residnets quickly went to the council about keeping the wire through their neighborhood. It’s just like how we are replacing the vans at East Base, with those new ugly vans. They should have just purchused new 30ft coaches, but the people on some of those van routes, didn’t like the idea of buses running through their neirborhood. So we have spent years trying to get new vans, and they are finally coming into service this shakeup. So it’s all political.

      3. Except the electric trolleys don’t use diesel, and they are a hell of a lot quieter than the diesels. There are demonstrable neighborhood benefits to ETBs vs. diesels, even the hybrids.

    2. If you watch the video of that part of the audit results, Principal Management Auditor Kymber Waltmunson makes it clear that the ETBs have other benefits that should be evaluated when deciding upon a replacement for the existing ETB fleet.

      – 33:28 ETB replacement audit result findings

      – 34:47 Statement that “we’re not recommending that trolleys or hybrids be selected as a replacement for the trolley fleet. Our audit only analyzed life-cycle costs; there are social and environmental factors to consider when making your replacement decision. For example: tailpipe emissions, noise, overhead wires. All of these factors, including costs, will need to be taken into account when making the replacement decision.”

      – 35:18 Further discussion and clarification initiated by Regan Dunn, including clarification of “social and environmental factors”. Dunn says he will flag that sheet and thanks Kimber for the analysis.

      – 55:17 Metro GM Kevin Desmond discusses grant proposal for fast-recharge batteries that would extend the distance that ETBs could be operated while off the wire followed by questions by Councilmember Phillips about the grant. Dunn continues with questions about fleet replacement timeline and Desomnd mentions other issues such as noise and emissions, estimates decision making around 2011. Additional discussion considers the longer service life (18 years) of ETBs.

      In any event, there seems to be lots of supporting evidence by the discussion that no decision has been made. Desmond seems to support the idea of ETBs, but if anyone is interested they can watch for themselves.

      1. I’d much rather have more advertising then $3 fares. The cost/benefit for me personally tilt’s towards cars with $2 fares…

  2. I’m reading section 4 now, but it doesn’t pass the sniff test. $8.7 million in savings per year? Assuming even half is for wire maintenance (which is the only credible argument), that’s 43 people working full time to maintain the wires, each earning $100k a year.

    1. Ok, I’ve read it. Sadly, they don’t list any source and hide their methodology. They give a single number for cost per year with the details hidden, and another number for estimated savings from improved scheduling without calculations. How does one go about auditing an auditor?

      1. My question exactly. One of the oldest political tricks in the book is to have an audit that only asks certain questions. This may not make much difference when the question is “Are we leaking money?”, but when the answers start involving moving money from capital funding to operation, and deferring maintenance, we should be hearing little alarm bells going off in our minds. These kinds of things rarely turn out well.

      1. Actually the report only finds $5.6M per year “savings” by switching out the ETBs with diesel hybrids. They claim an additional $3.1M can be had through scheduling efficiencies noting that the routes severed are some of the most inefficient in the system. I have to believe much if not most of the inefficiency is inherent in the routes due to congestion, number of stops, etc.

        Of the $5.6M they are using lifecycle costs, not just operations and maintenance. So yes the balance is skewed do to using old have from what I’ve read here less than state of the art trolleys. I only read the summary report but couldn’t find a breakout of how much of the saving was due to the higher purchase price of an ETB. And since they don’t have data on a hybrid put into service on these “inefficient” routes I think the savings are exagerated. They also note in the summary that additional federal funds are currently available for purchase and operation of the trolleys but didn’t indicate if that was factored in. Nor did they indicate if the cost of removing the equipment was factored in. And much was made of better use of personnel elsewhere in the system but I didn’t see where line maintenance was audited for potential savings.

    2. I think before we jump down the throats of the auditors about assumptions behind various numbers in the report and hidden political agendas, it might make sense to simply shoot them an email and ask them about the numbers. I talked with some of the auditors as part of the audit process and they seem like genuinely nice people just doing their jobs. Maybe they can explain a number? Put you in touch with someone at Metro who can provide more details?

      If they give you the run around, THEN we can get out the pitch-forks and FOIA requests. This is what citizen journalism is about, after all.

      1. Aw, I prefer to run straight for the pitchforks. But this once I’m making an exception and have send an e-mail to the County Auditor (Cheryle Broom). I’ll report back with the results, but light up the torches just in case.

      2. Ok, the results are in (pending a few questions back to the auditors). The cost difference isn’t in maintenance at all. They’ve assumed (or perhaps have hard evidence – I’ve asked them to clarify) that trolley buses are 2x the cost to purchase in the first place. That’s very hard to believe, especially since they’re assuming we’re buying nearly 200 of the things.

      3. Yep. If you figure $600,000 for a stink pot and $1.2M for an ETB then amortize the cost of replacing the fleet of 159 trolley buses over 16 years it comes up pretty close to the $35k per year more in lifecycle costs. I’ve suspected from the very beginning of the attack on ETB replacement that it was all about capital costs. This first surfaced around the time that the capital replacement fund was being reallocated to operations. Elected officials are more interested in the election cycle costs than lifecycle cost. The dilemma is service cuts are here and now and a decision on fleet replacement is only two years away. The driver in this decision is the cost of ETB replacement benefits Seattle only but service cuts are county wide.

    3. Not just wires, but electrical substations and associated costs of electricity. Also, labor isn’t the only cost, but maintenance, fueling and equipping of maintenance vehicles, costs of replacement hardware, shop fabrication tools, etc.

      Even though these things aren’t itemized in the report (probably for simplicity’s sake) – assuming that labor is the only cost doesn’t make much sense.

  3. Well, the takeaway here would be that raising fares totally dwarfs ending electric bus service in positive budget effects.

    And in this environment, raising fares also has the benefit of reducing ridership. I call it a benefit because they’re also suggesting that reducing maintenance, and transferring the money for new buses to operations, might be considered, and if those plans were implemented you would like to reduce ridership to reduce wear-and-tear.

    The upcoming budget would make this clearer- if somebody else weren’t going to be county exec soon.

    All in all, it’s a convincing illustration of the dangers of taking blue-pencil approach to transit.

  4. I think Metro needs to start wrapping buses again. That brought in a nice income until people started complaining. So what???? You want to pay more and get less service? Or do you want to just deal with riding a wrapped coach? Metro needs all the money it can get right now. I don’t know what the big deal was…..It wasn’t that hard to see out the windows (plus it keep the coaches cooler inside in the summer.)

  5. The ETBs work on Metro’s most difficult routes–the routes with heavy loads and lots of stops and starts on steep hills. These are the routes that will wear down a fleet of buses quickly, regardless if the bus is electric, diesel or hybrid. The auditors appear to be generalizing the cost of hybrid operations based on the system-wide cost of Metro’s hybrids and comparing it to the known cost of operating the ETB. What they should compare is the cost of operating hybrids on the existing ETB network against the cost of the existing ETB network’s cost. I would guess that hybrids operating on the 2, 3, 4, 10, 12, 43 and 49 routes will require a higher level of maintenance than a hybrid operating on other routes that don’t have to carry heavy loads up and down steep hills. If the hybrids wear out faster because of the harder work, the life cycle costs of the hybrids will jump quickly.

    $8.7 million isn’t much money when you’re talking about replacing a fleet of buses

    1. And it’s not even $8.7 million. The report only identifies $5.6 million in lifecycle costs for a hybrid vs the ETB. The imagined scheduling efficiency is through changing routes (meaning it’s no longer an apples to apples comparision) or by guessing that the modeling software which nobody seems to actually know how to operate will yield these savings because of removing the bunching constrain. But that can be eliminated with the trolleys by adding batteries (something you’d be dragging around with the hybrid anyway).

    2. Boy, you said a mouthful. It’s not hard to see where maintenance costs are coming from if you go out and drive up and down a few of the hills the ETBs run on. And it’s a great way to impress your out-of-town guests- they’ll gasp with delight when you start down the hill!

  6. If you take the yearly cost and divide by $100/hr for the hybrid and $130/hr for the ETBs you come up with only about 1400 hours a year. Obviously that’s not right so they must have stripped out labor costs. Maybe labor is the same for each type but it still have the effect of making the difference in operational costs appear to be a much larger percentage than it really is. It’s like looking at the cost of a trip to NY and factoring out the plane ticket. Cabs to the airport are 15X more than LINK so my New York vacation is 15X more expensive if I use a cab? I don’t think so. The more I think about this part of the audit the more it looks like someone is trying to set up the trolleys for being phased out and I don’t think it was the auditor. Even if the full $5.6 million is accurate (which I’m doubting) then it’s still less than 1% of Metro’s budget to save the emissions from 159 buses.

  7. Wow, raising access fares from $1 to $3.50 to save only $2.8 million? I’m sure if they raised the fares that high it would save a lot more because half the people wouldn’t be able to afford to ride it. Many people that ride access are low/fixed income and rely on this service for doctor’s appointments, counseling services, and general necessities of life.

    I have been riding access for the past month since a rather serious accident that has left me paralyzed. Unfortunately due to hills near my house I cannot make it to the bus stop and have to rely on access. At $3.50 a trip, I could easily spend near $20 a day since there are no transfers and every stop you make results in having to pay the fare again.

    One thing that they could do is actually enforce the fare. It seems like at least %50 of the time the driver doesn’t even ask for my dollar. I also wonder if it would be in their control to tighten the restrictions on who can ride. It seems like their are quite a few folks that have no problem walking up the stairs on the van and probably should just be riding the regular bus.

  8. Not yet discussed here is something that I mentione on another thread – a recommendation that the ATU 587 contract be changed to permit part-time drivers to work weekends (currently part-timers are contractually prohibited from working after 8pm or on weekends, even for fill-in work, sick and vacation relief, etc.).

    Currently Metro pays out a substantial amount of money in overtime when part-timers are willing and available to work the hours – mainly because the contract is structured to protect a certain amount of overtime for full-time drivers.

    Also absent from discussion is Triplett and Desmond’s statements (not well reported) that Metro management would not face cuts. Metro is extremely top-heavy with six-figure Chiefs and Administrators (5 chiefs for the Facilities maintenance division that supervises the janitors alone at a cost of half a million dollars a year), and yet the County is considering service cuts and even driver layoffs before taking a serious look at its own management structure.

    1. Also absent from discussion is Triplett and Desmond’s statements (not well reported) that Metro management would not face cuts. Metro is extremely top-heavy with six-figure Chiefs and Administrators (5 chiefs for the Facilities maintenance division that supervises the janitors alone at a cost of half a million dollars a year)

      You’d think an “independent” performance audit would compare this with say contract services or at least public and private peers? $1/2M isn’t large in the big scheme of things but if it’s the “tip of the iceberg” it sure could add up. I understand that the auditor isn’t a transit expert and has to rely on the expertise of the agency it’s auditing but there certainly do seem to be issues that were carefully steered.

      I can understand that there will always be a few OT junkies but I find it hard to believe that most full timers really want to work after 8PM or on weekends. Those are typically the hours folks trying to break into a profession are asked to work. And if those hours are your thing then don’t full timers have first crack at the schedule anyway?

      1. I can understand that there will always be a few OT junkies but I find it hard to believe that most full timers really want to work after 8PM or on weekends

        Actually a lot do – but many who work evenings and weekends do so not because it’s their preferred choice, but because they lack seniority to pick daylighters with weekends off. It can take 10 or more years to get the the point where a driver has enough seniority to pick what amounts to a regular “9-5” type job.

        At any rate – overtime is coveted among full-timers in particular, as it pays out at about $40.00 an hour. It isn’t a question of being “overtime junkies”, but drivers who can earn more with overtime are as self-interested as the rest of us. One doesn’t have to be a “junkie” to want to pay for a better lifestyle working a few extra hours a week. I don’t know of any driver (at least I’ve never talked to one) who complained about working overtime. Most complaints are more about the LACK of overtime, or the way that the seniority system allows more senior drivers to get more of it.

        And the issue isn’t regularly scheduled work so much as relief work. When a driver calls in sick or takes a vacation day that falls on a Saturday, Sunday or evening – that work has to be given to a full-time driver at a rate of $40.00 an hour. Give that same work to a part-time driver (particularly a junior one) and it pays significantly less – from $19.00 an hour (bottom of the pay scale, drivers with 2 years or less seniority) to $27.00 an hour (drivers at the top of the pay scale). Much less than paying overtime.

  9. I also wonder if it would be in their control to tighten the restrictions on who can ride.

    Yeah, I don’t think any of the people in Bridle Trails that are using Access as their $1 cab ride would feel the pinch of paying $3.50 and there’s already a process in place to get a reduced fare permit. For that matter the only Metro route within the required distance is the “school bus” that goes to Sammamish High School. I’m not sure that even qualifies as a regular service route and even if it does then service is only mandate when it’s running. Which it isn’t all summer or on weekends although Access certainly has been. There should also be a large subside from the general fund because this is health and human services as much or more than it’s transit and federal grants since in was Congress that mandated it. Net cost per boarding to Metro shouldn’t be out of line with the rest of the system. At $30 a ride it would be cheaper in many cases to call a cab. I know that’s not always an option depending on the medical condition. Training health agencies to drive their own vans is a cost savings and I would think a more coordinated service. That training should be a contract to Metro, not a cost born by Metro.

    Come to think of it, I’d pay a $3.50 fare if the regular bus deviated 3/4 of a mile and gave me curb to curb service. Seriously, if a couple of peak hour buses from Houghton P&R to downtown Seattle went down 132nd/134th and provided curb side pick-up they might generate 10-20 riders per trip. It would add almost no extra distance and only five minutes to the route and net $35-$70 in revenue. Seems like pretty good work if you can get it.

    1. Metro also provides taxi scrip at a sizable discount. Qualifying people can purchase $70 a month in cab fare for $35. It makes sense for metro to pay half of a persons cab fare instead of $39.17 per access trip. Heck, it would probably make sense for them to pay full cab fare in a lot of cases. Yellow cab even has quite a few vans with wheelchair ramps. At $39.17, I wonder if they could contract all trips out to cab companies and save money. They should at least raise the $70 limit and let people purchase more scrip, I know that it would reduce my access rides.

      1. The audit specifically addresses taxis, and finds that it’s actually more expensive than Access.

      2. Actually the audit stated that due to access cost increases, a 2009 access trip may actually exceed that of a taxi. I find it odd that a for-profit taxi company can match the cost of access. Especially since a taxi transports only transports one person at a time.

  10. I wonder if they could keep the Access fare for those with a RRFP at $1, and then let people who don’t have one use the system for $5.

    1. A doctor’s signature is required to be eligible for access. I’m pretty sure anyone who rides access would also be able to get a doctor to sign off on an RRFP. They also wouldn’t be able to raise it to $5, as stated above the max is double regular bus fare.

      I highly doubt that they would be able increase it to $3.50 anyways. There are way to many social service and community organizations that would speak out strongly against it. If one social service (Asian Counseling and Referral Service) was able to save a whole bus route, a large group of organizations should be able to successfully stop a fare increase.

  11. Maybe another way to raise new fare revenue is to establish a third fare zone covering areas like Federal Way, Auburn, Enumclaw, Maple Valley, North Bend, etc. and a higher fare for these long distance rides. The value of a longer trip is higher.

  12. The audit seems to recommend eliminating free transfers between buses.

    Eliminating transfers undermines the value of the network concept and the use of transit centers.

    It recommends an all-day pass priced at the cost of three trips. An all day pass would be attractive and should be enough to mitigate the elimination of transfers.

    However, they say that the all-day pass would be King County transit only. I don’t quite understand what that means – does that mean Metro only, or does it include Sound Transit service within King County? I think the distinction is a deal breaker because many trips require a combination of MT & ST, or certain corridors are served by both MT & ST, and riders should be able to make the most convenient connection – and the elimination of transfers issue is not solved by the day pass if ST buses are excluded from the day pass.

    There really should be a regional approach to fares.

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