With Seattle and King County Metro renewing their partnership in the Transportation Benefit District, it’s interesting to track how the cost of service escalates over the years.

Metro bills SDOT based on actual expenses; SDOT pays an estimated cost and the the agencies reconcile the difference at the end of each year. There are three pieces to the City’s total bill:

  1. The actual cost of driving, maintaining, and fueling the buses;
  2. Amortization and depreciation of the buses themselves; and
  3. a credit for fares, based on the systemwide farebox recovery ratio.

Metro’s Jeff Switzer was able to give me the figures for 2019. They break down like this:

2020 will turn out to be a funny year, with little fare recovery, more cleaning costs, and fewer hours over which to spread the overheads. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that the operating cost of service has gone well over $150 per hour during normal times. This is congruent with the $163/hour that Sound Transit was paying in 2017-18 ($)

17 Replies to “How Metro bills SDOT for service”

  1. My armchair understanding is that Metro bills the STBD rather than SDOT. STBD is a Council board while SDOT is a city department that reports to the Mayor.

    1. Revenue collected under the STBD each year is appropriated to SDOT’s budget, who oversees management of the program and who manages the service purchase with Metro.

  2. Two things that stick out:

    1) Fare recovery is probably higher for Seattle routes than systemwide, so SDOT is not getting enough credit for fare recovery as it should.

    2) Since the science has now established that COVID does not spread through surfaces, maybe all this extra deep cleaning of buses is just inflating costs and not really making riding them any safer. What really matters in terms of COVID safety is everyone wearing their masks.

    1. The STBD purchases are largely off-peak, so the countywide average farebox rate may be okay. It may not be worth the calculation; it could include all are media and rates.

    2. Definitely agree with both points, asdf2. For point 2, though, there probably is some benefit since COVID *does* spread through surfaces, but far less efficiently than respiratory droplets. High touch surfaces are higher risk, but I’m not an actuary so don’t know how to compare the cost of cleaning to the risk of infection. In any case, there’s also a psychological benefit since almost certainly some fraction of riders are more comfortable with the cleaning and might not ride otherwise. In any case, I don’t think it’s going to be something we have to worry about past this year, and maybe not even past summer.

      1. I’m not saying don’t clean buses at all. Before COVID, Metro was certainly cleaning buses, and, of course, should continue to do so. But, spraying disinfectant around every inch of the entire bus every night feels overkill. To the extent that surface spread is possible at all, it would be somebody touching a surface right after an infected person, not with an overnight gap in between.

        This level of spraying is mostly theater. What really matters here is people’s willingness to wear their masks.

      2. And I wasn’t advocating any specific cleaning procedure; I’m not an environmental expert on bus fleets. I was just responding to the general issue of surfaces. They’re not 100% safe even though they’re unlikely to spread it. I used to rebag my groceries when I got home and let them sit for 24 hours but I no longer do. I’m not that concerned about touching Metro’s railings, hand straps and doors, but I do think they should be wiped down every day, and if they weren’t I’d be more concerned. I don’t necessarily think the buses need to be fumigated every day.

        My biggest concern is air exchange. Does anybody know how frequently the air is exchanged on Metro and ST buses?

        My second concern is masks. For several months I saw 100% mask wearing, but it has gotten worse the past month or two. Now I see one or two people without masks on some runs.

      3. At least the air exchange, you have some control over as a passenger. Just open the windows and the air exchange goes up.

        I can see mask compliance becoming more of a problem as more people get vaccinated, figuring they’re protected, and not thinking about others.

      4. I agree that they (along with various agencies) overreacted when it comes to wiping down surfaces. But at this point, I wouldn’t change anything. It is likely reducing the instances of other diseases, so no reason to change. It is also quite possible that one of these Covid variants will be more transmissible via surfaces. We are on the home stretch here — no reason to change anything.

        As far as mask wearing, I can only hope that people take the same attitude. Wear your mask, to protect everyone. None of the vaccines are perfect. In some sense, they are like wearing a triple mask. The likelihood that you will catch it, or spread it, is greatly reduced. But it isn’t zero.

      5. I’m expecting to see a hoodie with a mask attached or a designer line of face masks in expensive materials or team logo masks to become fashion statements. Face masks will be the new neckties/ fashion scarves/ graphic tees!

        Where can I get my collection of Northgate Link opening souvenir face masks? The collection of six can have one for each station, one for the new vehicles, one for the new segment and one for all of newly-dubbed Line 1 showing all the stations.

  3. Wow, 10 million for ‘other’
    It would be interesting to know what’s all in that catch all line….

    1. That’s a number that popped my eyes out of my head, too. I’m wondering if vehicle depreciation is part of the $10 million. I believe that most of the cost of purchasing vehicles is still paid for by grants from the federal government. If Metro is buying buses with federal funds and then charging SDOT for the depreciation on those vehicles that were paid for by federal grants, I’d be a little surprised.

      1. Based on Martin’s overview of the charges, it seems to me that the “Fleet Charges” line is accounting for depreciation of the buses, which leaves the $10M line a black box puzzle (and deserving of some sort of audit).

        On the note of paying for gifted buses, it seems to me that charging for decreased value caused by additional mileage/service hours is appropriate. If you consider the buses an asset of KCM, SDOT’s use of the asset constitutes excess degradation of that asset, and therefore lost value, regardless of how that asset was acquired. I’m not great at explaining it, but that’s my understanding of it.

    2. My guess is it is a bunch of little stuff, none of which are worth bothering to call out, since they represent a small percentage of the overall spending. It costs $2.7 million for “Fuel and Insurance”, which means that no other single item is over that.

    3. Mostly overhead would be my best guess, if the accounting is simillar to how ST is billed by KCM, CT, and PT for purchased transportation. Would be a proportional share of both KCM’s overhead and King County’s overhead.

      The county spreads its overhead – think everything from shared IT resources to councilmembers’ staff salaries – into its various agencies. KCM is by far the largest agency in King County, so it absorbs the largest share of overhead. The county has very little discretional revenue, so it allocates down as much cost as it can into departments so that this ‘overhead’ is paid for by various funding streams (taxes, grants, etc.).

      If Link Operations remain a King County departments, in a few years Sound Transit will be paying for a rather large share of King County overhead; keep this in mind when there’s an interagency political firestorm when 1) ST tries to operate Stride independently from KCM, and 2) ST tries to extricate Link operations from KCM. The County has a strong financial incentive to keep as much ST work in house so they can spread fixed overhead costs over a larger pool of operating costs.

  4. I find that last number to be the most interesting. That is how much money Seattle bought (on top of what we paid to the county). It begs the question — what can that buy?

    Hard to say, of course, but here is some napkin math. This buys about 850 hours a day.

    Imagine if the main all-day buses from West Seattle to downtown ran like the train is supposed to — every six minutes during rush hour, and ten minutes the rest of the day. The C takes a full hour to get from one end to the other. A round trip then should take maybe two and a half hours. The bus is already very frequent at rush hour (running every 4 minutes). But outside of rush hour it goes to 12 minutes; 15 in the evening and 30 at night. From around 9:00 AM to 6:30 PM, you need an extra round trip. Then you need a couple an hour until 2:00 AM (to get 10 minute, then 15 minute frequency as the night goes on). That works out to be around 50, by my math. You probably need a few more (to get better reverse peak service) so say around 60.

    The 120 is similar, although it could use a little more during rush hour. So assume 70. The 21 would need more. I will round up to 120. So 250 hours to make the three main West Seattle to downtown buses run as often as we hope the train will.

    That’s not that much. Yet for riders it is huge. Folks in various parts of West Seattle (High Point, Fauntleroy, Westwood Village, White Center) suddenly have extremely good transit. We could continue this way quite easily. By my math, an all day 37 that starts at Alki could be had for about 140 hours. An all day 120 is similar. But at this point, it is time to consider a restructure. Time the 21 and C together (which means every 5 minutes in the middle of the day, 3 or less during rush hour). Now you can combine the all-day 37 with a far more frequent (but truncated) 125 (like so: https://goo.gl/maps/mWV2ZoeopuNjP1Et8). That means those riders would have to transfer (as they would with Link) but they would transfer to buses running twice as often (and without the very long trek up to the high platform). Anyway, that is probably around 120 hours (give or take). Again, all buses are running as often as West Seattle Link (6 – 10 minutes). The 128 gets split. The West Seattle part ends at White Center. It is the part that gets very frequent. I figure 100 hours for that (that is a massive increase in frequency, but it isn’t that far). It is the opposite for the 50 (not a huge increase in frequency, but it is a much longer route) and that about does it. Throw in some extra service to cover places like the 22, 56, 57, and tail end of 37 (giving them all day-service at around 15 minutes an hour) and you are at around $20 million per year.

    Keep in mind, a lot of this seems ridiculous. The 50 and 128 are running every 10 minutes in the middle of the day. We’ve replaced the 773 and 775 with a bus that does more, and runs every 10 minutes all day long. Of course it is wonderful for the peninsula — it completely transforms transit in the region. Everyone can get anywhere without waiting. As Jarrett Walker would say: Freedom! For the same reason, it just seems absurd. This would be rejected by Metro because it favors one area (West Seattle) while neglecting the rest of the city.

    And yet, it is nowhere near as expensive as West Seattle Link. $20 million per year for 50 years would mean a billion dollars. The *old* estimates for West Seattle Link were for $1.5 billion (I have no idea how expensive they are now, let alone when they actually start digging).

    I’m just doing napkin math here. I have no idea if this is accurate. But now I am very curious what would happen if we just took the West Seattle Link money, and bought better bus service for the peninsula. My guess is transit in West Seattle would be much, much better than if we build light rail.

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