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Metropolitan King County Council

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Metropolitan King County Council
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Seattle, WA 98104
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Sept. 1, 2009

Up to $31 million in savings and efficiencies identified in performance audit of Metro Transit

More efficient scheduling of buses and replacement of electric trolleys with hybrid fuel coaches among cost savings presented to County Council committee

Metro Transit could save from $23 million to $31 million a year by scheduling buses more efficiently and replacing electric trolleys with hybrid fuel coaches in a future bus purchase, according to the first part of a new performance audit presented today by the King County Auditor to a committee of the Metropolitan King County Council.

“This audit will be extremely useful in our ongoing efforts to balance the Transit Division’s budget,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn, chair of the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee. “We can use technology already available to become more efficient and cost effective. In doing this we can reduce the time that buses run empty and drivers are waiting for their routes to start. I’m hopeful that these recommendations can be implemented quickly and thus cut less service than previously anticipated.”

“The auditors’ work gives us a road map for squeezing as much service as possible out of every dollar Metro collects,” said Councilmember Larry Phillips, sponsor of the legislation authorizing the Transit Performance Audit. “This is exactly what I was looking for when I requested this audit last year. People rely on their bus service, so our economic conditions require that we refocus on the most cost-effective way of delivering that service.”

“At a time when demand for transit is at an all-time high, we have a responsibility to keep as many buses on the road as possible to serve the public,” said Council Chair Dow Constantine. “It is my goal to minimize any cuts in Metro service.”

Metro could save $12 million to $19 million per year by more efficient scheduling of its buses and operators, according to Kymber Waltmunson, Principal Management Auditor with the Auditor’s Office, in part by reducing the amount of time that buses lay over at the end of each trip. She said that while this “recovery time” averages 21 percent of the round-trip cycle at other transit agencies, Metro’s recovery times average 29 percent – meaning that buses and operators sit idle for nearly a third of the time they are in service. Recovery time is used for operator breaks, to help ensure that buses leave on schedule for their next trip, and to maintain spacing between buses. Waltmunson said Metro should be able to reduce recovery time in schedules while still honoring labor agreements that specify break times for operators.

Waltmunson said another efficiency can be found by scheduling bus routes based on the system as a whole, rather than the current practice of scheduling routes within one of Metro’s seven regional transit bases. She said this would help reduce the “deadheading” that occurs when buses return empty to their home bus base at the end of each operator’s shift, with “Terminal” on the destination display.

More training in the use of Metro’s existing scheduling software could save an additional $3.75 million per year, according to the audit. Waltmunson said Metro is still using mostly manual methods to assign buses and operators to trips; where two buses are now being assigned to handle two routes, she said use of the software could identify more opportunities where one bus and operator could more efficiently handle both routes. She said the software could also help Metro assign the most efficient type of operator – full-time or part-time – to each route.

The audit also notes that Metro could save $8.7 million per year by purchasing hybrid electric-diesel coaches instead of electric trolleys, when the trolley fleet comes up for scheduled replacement in 2014. The audit analysis shows that electric trolleys will cost $31.2 million a year to own and operate, while the hybrids would cost $22.6 million per year. Waltmunson acknowledged the audit does not consider the social and environmental considerations that will go into the replacement decision, including tail pipe emissions, noise, and overhead wires.

The audit identified opportunities to increase revenues by up to $51 million a year through consideration of a range of fare options that include, for example, eliminating fare zones or discounts for riding during off-peak times. In addition, Waltmunson called Metro’s structure of fare discounts, which average 60- to 80-percent of the base fare, “unusually generous” when compared to peer transit agencies whose discounted fares average 50- to 67-percent. The audit recommends pegging discounted fares to a percentage of the base fare, rather than setting them separately.

The Council called for the performance audit last fall when a sharp drop in the sales tax revenues that support bus service led to a projected $213 million revenue shortfall over the next two years. An interim report presented to the GAO Committee in May revealed a one-time reserve of as much as $105 million more than needed in a fund for replacement of Metro buses.

Today’s briefing covered the first of two parts of the Transit Performance Audit. The next briefing, scheduled for September 15, will examine opportunities for improvements by Metro in planning and analysis, staffing, paratransit, vehicle maintenance, ridership data, and communication with customers during emergencies. The final reports will also include more detail on the scenarios used for potential fare revenue increases.

The Auditor will present the final written reports and recommendations at the September 15 meeting of the GAO Committee, prior to the Council’s receipt of the 2010 Executive Proposed Budget on September 28.

View a PowerPoint summary of the final audit report that will be ready for release on September 15