Atlantic Base (photo by Robin Kiley)

One of the interesting nuggets in the Citizen Oversight Panel report was the following:

ST Express Bus Base. This project will involve constructing new ST-owned maintenance and operations capacity to accommodate up to 300 buses to support existing and future ST Express services. In the past all of ST’s buses have been stored and serviced at partner agency-owned facilities. This ST2 project was supposed to begin development of a siting study in 2010 but was delayed as part of the agency’s program realignment. It was authorized in January 2011.

According to spokesman Geoff Patrick, this is not a firm plan to construct the facility, but rather a Parsons Brinckerhoff study to work out the particulars. The Sound Transit board is interested in exploring to find “options for achieving cost savings in operating ST Express”, as Metro charges ST for service provision at an unusually high rate.

Patrick also comments that Sounder will “be part of the discussion.”

If ST ends up going through with it in mid-decade, the impact on riders will be mixed. If you ride Sound Transit buses, there ought to be more service than there would otherwise be. For Metro, overhead costs would be spread over fewer runs, so it’s likely to deteriorate the budget situation somewhat.

40 Replies to “ST Mulling Its Own Bus Base”

  1. Nice photo. It’s always fun being the first one out of the base on a snow day, with carbon inserts removed from the shoes, to ‘bust’ the ice off the overhead.

  2. I’ve brought this issue up before. About Sound Transit being a transit bus agency in name only, contracting other agencies to drive, service, maintain, and store their buses for them. And if memory serves, both posters and commenters here said it would be redundant and inefficient for Sound Transit to do otherwise.

    So I’m concluding STB is against ST moving in this direction.

    1. I suspect STB is in favor of anything that allows service to be delivered more cost-effectively, and gives more room for more service growth. The purpose of this study is, according to this post, to evaluate more thoroughly whether going this route would be more or less efficient. I would find an engineering study rather more authoritative in this matter than random people on the internet.

      1. I would just ask that the result be looked at not from the viewpoint of ST’s profit margin, but from the combined agencies’ savings, if such pencils out (through tactics other than union busting).

      2. I also hope the study will look at how having Metro open a new south King County base, and let ST have joint operations out of there, would pencil out, out of recognition that Metro and ST are serving the same taxpayers (more or less). Eudomonaia for the taxpayers!

    2. There are two things you can do. Either you continue the contracting, but have the buses parked at your own facility, or you move 100% of operations in-house. Then, you need to hire your own:
      1) Mechanics
      2) Dispatchers
      3) Supervisors
      4) Trainers
      5) Parts department
      And the list goes on.

      Could ST do it cheaper than Metro? I have no doubts. Is it wise to have duplicate people and parts on hand–especially when ST’s fleet share many common parts with Metro, PT, and CT? We’ll see what the consultant says.

  3. Well, Metro has already lost two Sound Transit routes to Pierce Transit – The 566 and the 577. I’m convinced it was a budget savings on ST part, even with the huge amounts of deadheading coaches need to do from Pierce County to Overlake. The only “safe” ST route Metro has is the 550, with it being in the Tunnel.

    1. Hindsight is 20-20
      I thought it was a dumb idea for Ruth Fisher & Co. to force Metro to create the RTA out of an effort to build mass transit that they started. Fisher saw it as the only way to get Pierce and Snohomish on the bandwagon, by creating a separate agency, using Seattle’s pro-transit votes to counter their anti-transit voters.
      So here we are, 20 years later, still rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You pay, no you pay, no my route, no your route, my rail, my revenue from ORCA, and on and on and on.
      Metro should have built mass transit in King Co, like most every other transit agency does, and reap the benefits of having a more productive vehicle to do the job of many less productive ones. If in 20 years after the core system is built, and PT or CT wants to marry up, then by all means, join the fun.

    2. My reading of the 566 schedule shows the buses starting from Kent first, going north. I’m not sure how basing the buses in Pierce County or south King County would create more deadhead.

      Likewise, most of the 577s and 578s head north in the morning and south in the evening. How do you figure running those buses out of Pierce County results in more deadhead?

      1. Pierce Transit garage to Auburn Station: 19.5 miles. South Base to Auburn Station: 18.7 miles.
        Pierce Transit garage to Federal Way Transit Center: 17.9 miles. South Base to FWTC: 13.9 miles.

        PT also has CNG coaches–I don’t know how the operating cost per mile compares to diesel coaches.

        Regarding the 566–apparently there isn’t enough projected demand in Auburn for the first trip of the day to start at Auburn Station and meander along C street to Auburn P&R. There is definitely more ridership north of Kent–which is the reason why we have the turnback routing.

    3. I don’t know what you mean by “safe”. Route 566 and 577 is still operated by union workers.

  4. I’ll take an alternative track and say that this may not be such a bad thing, long term. Assuming revenues recover at some point and Metro starts to grow again, all of the bases I work at are relatively full with buses. East Base was full last time I worked there with buses spilling off the back of the lanes. If ST wants to build another base, it may make sense although I kind of doubt it. Something about reinventing the wheel comes to mind.

    Hopefully this is just a negotiating tactic and ST & Partner agencies can work together to keep costs low across the board. That said, it sure smacks of an effort to privatize the service. Let the race to the bottom begin.

    1. Velo, I think you hit the nail on the head: ST can get out from under the unions by creating its own base where the unions have to organize from scratch. I think ST would be risking ST3 by earning the wrath of the AFL-CIO. I just don’t think the study can adequately weigh political pros and cons.

      1. It would be a good thing for the tax payer to have the new base non-union. More money freed up for service.

      2. Rob, that’s a pretty simple way to look at things. Privatization is portrayed as a way to save money by keeping the evil unions out. That may be true in some of the more extreme cases but there are plenty of opportunities for the taxpayer to get screwed by private companies. Perhaps you’ve heard of Halliburton and KBR and all the billing nonsense that went on during the Iraq war?

        Life is rarely simple…

      3. Even more difficult – privitization does not necessarily mean that the new operator is not a union shop. CT service operated by First Transit is a union shop.

      4. Contracting out means additional overhead bureaucracy for the staff that runs the contracting process and serves as intermediary watchdogs over the work of the contractor. Plus, they have to go through the process again every few years, and often start the service (including mass hiring of people off the street who hopefully have learned to drive) again from scratch. The unionizing also tends to have to start from scratch, so the first year or two of the contract features the distractions of management-labor battles.

        Seattle Public Schools has had such a headache with the contracting process (much of it from said management-labor battles) that they are giving ORCA cards to all the high school kids and telling them “Good luck!” I do appreciate having more people on ORCA, but Metro has their work cut out for them to redesign routes around the new demand SPS just dumped on them.

        Which reminds me… doesn’t that mean there might be some school bus bases out there available for Metro to buy up, while the price is down?

      5. Well – CT’s commuter service has been with a private contractor since the late 1980s, when they replaced the service under contract with Metro.

      6. Kaleci, look at how all that “savings” from contracting-out impressed the legislature. ;)

  5. Sigh. We really need to merge all these agencies. It doesn’t make sense to have multiple overlapping agencies in the same region. We should be getting more for our tax dollars in terms of increased service, rather than competing with ourselves and paying 5x the admin costs.

    1. That’s probably a better use of the study money set aside for a separate bus base.
      Aside from the great ‘push back’ from PT, CT, ET, ATU587, and maybe even some cities, it would make better sense to quantify savings to be gained through service administration and consolidation, versus the extra costs of trying to merge so many different agencies into a common beast down the road. At least all the cat fights could be resolved by one big cat.
      A larger agency would benefit from being the biggest gorilla on the block for miles around, and savings from installing rail to replace lots of buses would no longer be such a big deal.

      1. Yeah, because creating larger organizations will result in efficiencies of scale and lower costs. So, the Pentagon, the 22nd largest economy on the planet, equivalent in size to the entire Dutch economy, serviced by lots of efficiency seeking private contractors, with no collective bargaining rights for federal employees must be a shining example of efficiency, right?

        Um, actually, no.

        I’d be more in favor of a little pruning, “cleanup”, and shifting routes to align with each individual organization’s mission. Sound Transit should stick to regional routes and rail while the county transit agencies should stick to locals and intra-county routes.

        One example: Why is the 522 a Sound Transit route and not a Metro route? It doesn’t cross county boundaries? The 550 I sort of get since it’s going to be, hopefully, converted to Light rail within the next decade. That said, the initial takeover of the 550 seemed premature. Ditto for the 542, 545, 554, 555, and 556. It’s a mess.

        And then don’t get me started about RapidRide E & SWIFT. Shouldn’t those be one long BRT line operated by Sound Transit instead of two very distinct types of BRT and BRT-lite?

        The agencies should each stick to their knitting and learn to cooperate. Buy the same buses and engines for heaven’s sake and maybe even share maintenance resources. (Do all 3 agencies need body shops? Could PT use Metro’s wash bays when their buses are up here on storage trippers? I don’t know, I’m just guessing. But I’m relatively sure the agencies could work together to create more efficiency without having to create an 800 lb gorilla Seattle version of Tri-Met. Both systems have their pros and cons.

      2. Yeah, because creating larger organizations will result in efficiencies of scale and lower costs. So, the Pentagon…

        Or closer to home, Metro is the high priced spread compared to any other contracts ST signs even though it’s the 800# gorilla.

      3. VeloBusRider: “One example: Why is the 522 a Sound Transit route and not a Metro route? It doesn’t cross county boundaries? The 550 I sort of get since it’s going to be, hopefully, converted to Light rail within the next decade. That said, the initial takeover of the 550 seemed premature. Ditto for the 542, 545, 554, 555, and 556. It’s a mess.”

        It makes more sense if you consider how King County is broken up into sub-areas. Those routes all go between East King and North King. Of course, there are many other routes like that which are KCMT routes.

    2. Wouldn’t it make sense to look at agencies merging one by one? (i.e. Metro with ST)

      Then, how do we know they won’t make daffy systemwide decisions like ending Sunday service for everyone?

  6. I’d rather see Sound Transit be the agency that focuses on train alone (heavy rail and light rail) and that there’s only one bus transit agency per county. What it looks like is that ST being in the bus business freed up capacity at the various transit agencies they’re presently contracting with (for other service), just as North Link might do, although more likely to be part of their service cuts in the latter case. If ST takes on the whole ball of wax for buses, that requires them to have their own set of a bunch of positions, as Tim outlined, while some of the positions that are currently working on their contract at Metro and elsewhere are bound to be gone. ST might choose to contract out to a lower-cost provider rather than run the service themselves, as has happened in Snohomish County, but not with the others in so far as I’m aware. That’s why the cost per hour varies widely for their contractors; see their advisory group’s report. It will be interesting to see if their consultant finds having their own base is more efficient overall. I agree with VeloBusDriver, too, I’ve always thought that peak-hour buses going near another agency’s base could lay over there rather than drive back to their own bases, perhaps even drive some of the other agency’s mid-day trips.

    1. Remember that ST not only operates express bus routes, but it also funds bus capital projects, like freeway stops, transit centers and P&R expansions.

      In treating high capacity transit expansion, the agency should really be mode agnostic, picking the best solution for any particular corridor, whether it may be BRT, light rail or heavy rail. By having separate groups that focus on rail or bus, you’re likely to have them lobbying for a particular solution that fits their speciality.

  7. If they do build their own base, it wouldent surprise me for them to go out for competitive bid for the base and all the routes on the eastside. Will the public get better service? I dont think it will change. Actual cost of operation probally wont change much since if a private contractor got it, the savings they offer in staff and benefits, will get neuturalized by the fact they have to make a profit, while with a public contractor, that money will go back to the employees since they are unionized. I think one of the things for ST III is a need to rationalize some of these routes, and convert them to “BRT” type lines (like the 574 577 578 590 591 594 series for example), the SR-520 services and I-5 North routes as well could use a similar treatment. In the process, adding HOV In-Lane Flyer stops, and maintaining a constent ten minute plus headway throughout the day.

    1. Not necessarily. ST is getting a far better price for service hours from PT and CT (who then passes the ST services on to First Transit) than from Metro.

      If ST built its own base and negotiated its own contract with an operator like First Transit it is quite possible they would see far lower costs even if the drivers were unionized.

      I think the real question is why the Metro provided service hours are so dang expensive. I’m especially intested in any areas that aren’t necessarily related to employee wages and benifits, especially the drivers and mechanics.

  8. The way things are currently done, there are different standards for different ST routes, depending on which agency operates them. For example, PT-operated buses often don’t have a rear door, CT and PT-operated buses have 2-position bike racks, instead of 3-position bike racks, and CT-operated buses don’t have real time data on OneBusAway, like routes operated by the other agencies do.

    It would be nice if all buses with the ST brand could operate under a consistent set of standards.

    1. Or when an ST route is operated on a Metro coach, or vice-versa. It confuses people and dilutes the brand.

    2. PT-operated buses often don’t have a rear door

      All PT-operated buses have a rear door

      CT-operated buses don’t have real time data on OneBusAway

      None of Community Transit’s buses have any sort of tracking system. It has nothing to do with OBA and has nothing to do with ST.

      1. *Except the MCIs. I meant the Gilligs.
        But a rear door isn’t even an option on the MCIs. Which is one of the reasons why they’re so high capacity.

  9. I think you’re glossing over one of the major problems with ST having their own base: the difficulty of acquiring and building a new bus base (unless Metro sells one of theirs to ST). There aren’t too many very large tracts of land with good freeway access where there there aren’t businesses or residences nearby… most people aren’t too thrilled to have hundreds of large vehicles drving by from early in the morning till late at night.

    1. It might make sense for ST to acquire a parcel nearby East Base, and later convert it into an East Link maintenance facility. In the meantime it could be an extension of East Base.

      But with the Bel-Red development plans, the land values may be too high.

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