Regardless of how the intramural County fight over near-term Metro cuts resolves itself, it is exceedingly likely that Metro will operate over the next few years with some kind of reserve. According to County spokesman Jeff Switzer, this money is “invested in the King County Investment Pool with all county funds.”
That’s completely reasonable, but let’s hope that Metro’s staff takes some time to identify a slightly more exotic investment. Numerous capital projects can improve bus speed and reliability, shaving a minute here or there from each trip. Metro doesn’t pay for buses by the minute, but enough savings along the course of a route can reduce the number of buses needed to maintain a service level.
These projects are traditionally the domain of cities, but given Seattle’s lunge into buying service, that distinction is breaking down. Moreover, as Metro is the institutional beneficiary of these improvements, it is the one with the proper incentives to invest accordingly.
An example that comes to mind is redoing the connection between Bellevue College and Eastgate, which a few years ago I estimated as a 30% return on investment per year, forever. That back-of-the-envelope guess that could really use refinement by qualified staff. A similarly thorough review of all planned projects ought to identify those where the return in operating savings exceeds the likely return from more traditional investments. As a bonus, these returns come from time savings that also benefit riders directly.
The reduced costs shield Metro from recession in the same way that cash in an account does. And although I’m not wild about the tendency to cut capital projects when times are tough, it is nevertheless true that it is much easier to scale back promised future improvements during budget crises than to remove service that people already use and depend on, making capital funds politically more flexible than operating money.