Credit: SDOT

Seattle’s $50M yearly investment in additional bus service has helped deliver frequent transit service to a majority of households in the city. After three years, the percentage of families living near routes with transit service every 10 minutes has more than doubled, SDOT says. Now a driver shortage could limit the extra service Seattle can buy from King County Metro Transit, as the city strives to bring frequent transit service to even more households this year.

In 2014, voters approved Proposition 1, which created the Seattle Transportation Benefit District (STBD) to pay for increased bus service funded by a $60 licensing fee and a 0.1% sales tax increase. The funding increased the frequency of buses and eased overcrowding by adding 270,000 hours of annual bus service to 68 bus routes.  

Three years later, the city estimates 64% of households are within a 10-minute walk of all-day transit service running every 10 minutes or better, up from 25% in 2015, leaving the city only 8 percentage points away from its 2025 goal of 72% of households.

“As soon as the service gets out there, it gets filled up with riders,” said Andrew Glass-Hastings, SDOT’s director of transit and mobility, while giving members of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee the annual STBD report in January. “It’s a good thing, but it also means we are continually a little bit behind meeting demand for service.”

He pointed specifically to RapidRide Lines C and D, which remain overcrowded even as Seattle pays for more than a third of the service for both routes. But a Metro labor shortage might limit the city’s ability to purchase additional bus service.

Credit: SDOT

“In a tight labor market, Metro is struggling to attract enough operators for their buses,” Glass-Hastings said. “So, although we are very fortunate to have strong resources to build toward this goal of 72% over the next year, we are bumping up on some constraints on our transit partner to meet that.”

Metro spokesperson, Jeff Switzer, said the agency needs to hire about 100 new drivers to deliver the upcoming March 2018 service changes. The transit agency makes major service changes twice a year, in March and September.

“The pace of growth over the past four years has challenged our agency not only with operator hiring but also staffing in other key positions; and in operations and maintenance base capacity,” Switzer wrote in an email. “Metro is working to hire for positions throughout the agency that are critical to delivering service, such as mechanics and more front line supervisory staff to manage the service in real time.”

Currently, the city Metro has 1,903 full-time and 993 part-time drivers. (And is still hiring!) Switzer said in 2017 and 2018, Metro is adding a total of about 300,000 hours of new service, bringing Metro’s yearly service total to 4.26M hours.

Switzer said Metro hires operators continuously, but major service changes can result in temporary shortages of operators, increasing the number of canceled trips. He estimated the agency is hiring and training about a dozen new part-time drivers each week. On average, part-time drivers work for about nine months before moving to full-time. Switzer said even on the worst of days, the agency is typically delivering over 99% of the service scheduled.

Switzer said another constraint the agency is facing is finding places to park and maintain buses. Currently, all Metro bus bases are over optimal capacity, but the agency is working on several projects to expand base capacity and support service expansion system-wide, he added.

Metro service is also purchased by the cities of Auburn, Issaquah, Kent, Mercer Island, Redmond, and Sammamish. In addition, the transit agency has service partnerships with private companies and schools.

“We try to work with [Seattle] to bring our service goals into alignment as much as possible, but our current growth constraints are something we both have to work around,” Switzer wrote in an email.

39 Replies to “Metro Labor Shortage Limits Transportation Benefit District”

  1. Why does metro need to be the sole operator of transit? Stifling competition and artificially inflating wages means we all lose.

    1. A) They are not the sole operator of transit. Many Sound Transit routes within King County are operated out of Pierce Transit or Community Transit bases to save money. I ride both Metro and PT operated routes regularly, and there is a clear gap in service quality between the Metro Transit operated routes and the Pierce Transit operated routes; it’s pretty clear that Metro’s higher wages do actually buy higher quality service (stops not skipped, signboards set correctly, published routes actually followed, customer service policies actually adhered to, etc).

      B) If there’s a driver shortage and Metro is missing their recruitment goals, how can you say that wages are “artificially” inflated? That seems like natural market-driven wage inflation to me.

      C) Typically, a lack of competition among employers in a field results in lower wages, not higher, as employers don’t have to compete for workers, and workers have to take whatever wages are offered by the sole employer.

      1. C) Unless the employer is dealing with a single union. A monopsony of bus drivers (Metro) is fully mitigated by a monopoly on bus drivers (the union)

      2. @AJ
        C) If this became a true wage inflation issue (not presently happening as evidenced by (b)), would it be within Metro’s power to seek out competing labor bids from nearby ATU locals 758 and 1576? And if the wage inflation was extreme – i.e. extremely high wages despite a large overall labor surplus – wouldn’t unemployed drivers form a competing union?

      3. For the record, I think it’s simply a hot labor market & Metro has the same problem most private employers are having right now – finding skilled labor at a reasonable cost.

        But: “i.e. extremely high wages despite a large overall labor surplus – wouldn’t unemployed drivers form a competing union?” – no, not necessarily, particularly if the existing union prevents the competing union from forming. You are basically arguing in favor of right-to-work labor laws, which are anathema in blue states. Look to southern Europe & to a lesser extent northern Europe & Japan – formal employment pays very well for those who have a permanent jobs, while the rest of the labor force struggles with high unemployment & short term labor contracts.

      4. Metro has had a shortage of drivers ever since the roller coaster of 2014 layoffs, 2015 Prop 1, and 2016 the economy coming back. Each service change it has to accommodate the expansion by silently canceling a few low-volume runs it doesn’t have enough drivers for. It sounds like this service change the problem is the same or more acute, and may prevent all the planned expansions from being fully rolled out.

    2. Steven just by this very posting, your personal future has opened like a turbocharged garage door. Get down to Jackson and Second, by reasonably paid, competive Uber or Lyfft. KC Metro’s office has been open at least an hour! With hundreds of overpaid jobs literally begging like puppies for you to take one!

      Giving you an income source that, in this market, your independent never-Federally-rescued bank will consider all the collateral you need to get your company started. And you won’t need any at all for that house in Laurelhurst.

      But best thing will be a world of professional contacts who’ll be really glad to help you. First vacation-
      on your first day of work- will give you first class plane fare to Africa, Asia, and South America.

      Where you’ll meet thousands of people whose income and working conditions will make you tear up your passport, for a transit driving life of real competition. With all the health care (your) money can buy. One shake-up more of overpaid seniority for me!

      Mark Dublin

      1. Cute. Other cities pay private transportation operators, not beholden to Union nonsense. Glad you like us paying more for less service. It’s very transit blog of you.

      2. Community Transit is operated by a private contractor, and last I checked their per service hour costs are slightly higher than King County Metro.

        This likely has something to do with the amount of one direction expresses in their route structure, but if you are looking for some vast savings by using a private operator this just doesn’t seem to happen.

      3. There is possibly a case to be made that the union is hurting efforts to hire new workers. My assumption is that Metro salaries are controlled by the union agreement. But in a tight labor market, that would make it harder for Metro to hire since they can’t increase the pay or improve working conditions (by which I mean things like allowing new employees more flexibility on route choices and the like). That being said, if you’re hired outside of the union contract, then you’d likely lose these benefits once a recession hit, so it would certainly be a trade off.

      4. “Community Transit is operated by a private contractor, and last I checked their per service hour costs are slightly higher than King County Metro.”

        The facts….

        >>>After this new contract is implemented, the hourly rate for Sound Transit service operated through Community Transit will be approximately $115 per platform hour. Pierce Transit’s baseline rate to provide ST Express service is $127 per platform hour; King County Metro’s baseline rate is $138 per platform hour.<<>>On May 9, 2012, Community Transit entered into a multiyear contract with First Transit. Under
        the terms of the contract, First Transit will operate Community Transit’s express commuter bus service for a five-year, seven-month period with renewal options for five additional one-year term extensions beginning January 1, 2018.

        First Transit operates the service from Community Transit’s Kasch Park Base under the terms of the facility lease provisions of the commuter service agreement. The annual cost of the service for the five-year, seven-month period, which includes 92,560 service hours of Sound Transit express commuter service, is shown below.

        Contract Period/Revenue Service Hours/Annual Cost
        Jun 09, 2012 to Dec 31, 2013/196,133 $ 25,102,589
        Jan 01, 2014 to Dec 31, 2014/124,040 $ 16,352,081
        Jan 01, 2015 to Dec 31, 2015/124,040 $ 16,842,643
        Jan 01, 2016 to Dec 31, 2016/124,040 $ 17,347,923
        Jan 01, 2017 to Dec 31, 2017/124,040 $ 17,868,360

        The annual cost is within the annual budget. Contract service with First Transit for Community Transit service amounted to $4,265,965 in 2013 compared to $5,205,947 in 2012. Actual annual revenue hours amounted to 35,777 in 2013 as compared to 32,806 in 2012.

        Contract service with First Transit for Sound Transit service amounted to $11,742,152 in 2013 compared to $11,011,044 in 2012. Actual revenue hours amounted to 89,709 in 2013 as
        compared to 92,538 for 2012.<<<

        Source: SAO Report No. 1012079, June 16, 2014, p.53

      5. The first snippet in my post above got a little messed up. The source should have followed….

        Source: Sound Transit R2012-19 and associated staff report, p.3

        Then the second snippet from the 2014 SAO report follows as stated above.

      6. Must be the amount of deadheading that makes CT routes cost more per service hour in the FTA database.

    3. My gosh, I take offense at that “inflated” wage malarkey. Seriously?, in this city? My grandfather spent his career driving a Seattle Transit and KC Metro bus (1950s-90s), and he managed to raise a family and buy a home in West Seattle on that salary…and enjoy the classic middle class American existence — everything paid off and never in debt. I very much doubt that is possible for your average Metro driver today, it’s probably a tenuous connection to “middle” class for all but the most tenured.

      We better get a grip on what many consider “wasteful” or overly generous salaries, and push back against that. I don’t even know how a normal public sector employee can make it anymore. Could a teacher, police officer, firefighter, librarian, garbage truck driver even afford to live in Seattle today? Those people could actually buy a home in Wallingford-Magnolia-Queen Anne not so many years ago.

      1. The inflated wage argument boils down to, because some people work for minimum wage, everybody else should too. But as you point out, nowadays you can’t even rent an apartment on minimum wage, and before Seattle’s $15/hour many workers had to go to the food bank, and forget about medical expenses.

      2. Agreed. I don’t see why everyone argues over “inflated wages” for what are essentially working and middle class people but don’t make as many protestations against the exorbitant wages earned by upper executives and CEOs, who on average make more than 300 times what those at the bottom of the company make. Quite picking on the average folk and start asking why a tiny minority at the top can make such fantastically huge salaries and not get so much flack. Is making a comfortable wage only a sin for people who aren’t rich?

    4. Because with “jitney” transit you get massive traffic jams of screaming drivers. You get TNC Perverts©. You get “private gain with public costs”, the hedge fundies’ erotic dream.

  2. Is Metro using any of its “own” money to fund Seattle service improvements now?

    If Metro identifies overcrowding on C and D, does Metro have the first responsibility to increase service? Or is Metro leaning on Seattle to fund it first?

    If Metro is genuinely out of money for extra service, then this is fair to use the TBD funds. Likewise if Metro determines that the next best use of incremental service dollars is another overcrowded route serving another city. But if neither of those is true, it seems like the TBD is allowing Metro to use Seattle taxes to backfill its operations outside the city.

    1. IIRC, Metro requires a certain period of time to pass before successful partner-purchased trips are moved to their own budget.

      Also IIRC, Metro calculates crowding on routes as if partner-purchased service hours did not exist – I.E. if the current C line was at 100% capacity including STBD purchased service hours, Metro’s crowding statistics would show it at 135% capacity.

      My information may be out of date and I welcome corrections.

    2. We’re supplementiing Metro’s service hours. Metro does not have hours for this service or it would find them already, especially because half of them have been in the”underserviced” part if Meto’s performance report for years. The Seattle proportion of Metro’s hours hasn’t changed substantially.

    3. Metro has no money of “its own”. It’s a passthrough for tax and farebox revenues dedicated to operating a transit system for the people who provide those revenues and use the service.

      Though its resources rise and fall with the economy, no one has proposed a “Permanent Fund” for transit which might be said to “belong” to Metro.

      The way it allocates its revenues to service is governed by rules adopted by the County Council and (largely) observed.

    4. I don’t think it’s a specific time period, it’s just a question of when additional core funds come in that Metro can replace supplemental service with regular service (and thus free up supplemental funds for something else). Almost all of these routes are ones Metro has wanted to expand for at least a decade and a half but never had the funds to. A few of them like the 47 were supplemented because of local community demand: i.e., Summit has a number of elderly people who can’t walk up the steep hill.

    5. History lesson: In the bad old days from around the 1980s to 2011, the County Council has a “40-40-20” rule that Seattle could keep its disproportionate percent of service inherited from Seattle Transit, but any new revenue would be allocated 40% to East King, 40% to South King, and 20% to Seattle, to gradually equalize the level of service between Seattle and the suburbs. There was an inverse 60-20-20 (or 60-30-10?) formula for contracting service during recessions and such. The net result was shifting hours from Seattle to the Eastside, leading to empty Eastside buses and Seattle passengers SOL. South King also benefited, but South King also has a large population and has developed a high percentage of poor/transit-dependent people, so it needs it. Also the county council arbitrarily modified Metro’s service changes, restoring a reduced route because one person complained to the council, thus blocking another enhancement or restructure or making Metro less efficient.

      In the loss of sales-tax revenue after the 2008 crash, Metro was gong to contract a quarter of its service in 2012, but in 2011 the Council made a multi-way deal: (A) accept a state authorization to raise taxes for 2 years to postpone the cuts, (B) eliminate the downtown Ride Free Area (which was increasingly requiring a county subsidy), (C) switch from 40-40-20 to new performance metrics that require service changes to meet a ridership-and-coverage formula, and (D) the Council would respect the new performance metrics and not arbitrarily override certain routes for squeaky-wheel complainers. The last one pretty much held until 2016, when the council backslid a bit on the 71 and 78, but fortunately those blemishes have few and minor.

    1. IMHO, one of the shortcomings of ST3. Driverless busses are relatively new, but driverless trains have been around for decades, and our neighbors to the north sure seem to know how to run them.

    1. Please define ‘speeding up busses.’ busses can only go as fast as the surrounding traffic.

      1. >> Please define ‘speeding up busses.’

        Making the buses run faster (that was easy). OK, you want some ideas:

        1) More off board payment or payment not verified by the driver. I believe the entire Vancouver BC bus system works that way.
        2) Encourage more ORCA use by having a discount over cash payment.
        3) More bus lanes.
        4) Better enforcement of bus lanes.
        5) More traffic light priority.

        >> busses can only go as fast as the surrounding traffic.

        See items 3 and 4 above.

  3. How much tax revenue is needed to complete the ST3 projects? Why doesn’t the agency just issue some fare-backed revenue bonds to make up the difference if the car/truck valuation schedule is changed? Now Sound Transit takes in $2 billion of revenue per year — shaving some off that huge figure shouldn’t impact anything, given how none of the ST3 projects have moved past concept planning at this point, and won’t be shovel ready for 10 years . . ..

    1. ST can only raise the kinds of taxes the state allows. I’m not sure if fare-backed bonds are used elsewhere, but it sounds like the proposals to build projects based on adjacent landowners’ future added value from the project. That runs afoul of something in the state constitution or state law, I’m not sure exactly but it’s not available here.

  4. Remind me again what sort of weird world SDOT lives in where midday 12 minute frequency on the C and D Lines is “all-day transit service running every 10 minutes or better.”

    So now 12 minute frequency is better than 10 minutes?

  5. asdf, you need to factor in the time and wages needed to program a fully-automated system. And since wrongful death insurance will hardly cost anything, you’ll only need enough attorneys to make sure nobody successfully sues you for the ten cents you have left over. When survivors have finally got your hide for seat-covers.

    Frank, election coming up as fast as a bus in between the paint stripes in your dreams, so have at it. Meydenbauer perfect for all the negative voters who’ll finally have the chance to leave their cars home and for the first time in family history, ride a bus to the overflowing meeting

    But very seriously. Worldwide, a lot of buses are run by cooperatives with their owners’ desks being steering wheels. And by observation, ridership only limited by space on the roof and under the dashboards. However by politics and income, Seattle itself might be an excellent place for an experiment with worker-owned line haul transit.

    Any thoughts from anybody in 587 reading this?


    1. We also need proof that an automated system can work on multi-use streets. The robocar companies are still in very small-scale testing and keep identifying more major problems, like recognizing a bicyclist and predicting what s/he will do. The only bus fleet testing I’ve heard of is on a couple limited corridors. So we’re at least a decade off from converting regular Metro routes to driverless, and possibly much longer if ever. We may have to convert the routes to fenced transit lanes with those little posts, which would at least limit the complications to intersections. But you know how hard it is to get any kind of transit lanes in Seattle: we still don’t have then on Aurora except in a few small spots.

      1. The obvious place to start is with automation of the Link trains. They’re already mostly separated. All that’s missing is sensors to detect red light runners in the Ranier Valley.

      2. Red light runners should be pretty easy, put in a camera to detect them and alert the train. And give the driver a ticket.

  6. I wonder if mandatory and random/frequent drug testing deters new prospective drivers. Cannabis is legal but Metro takes federal money, so they still have to pretend that it’s the worst thing ever. Like alcohol, moderate use off the clock does not impair driving.

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