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Originally published Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Metro Transit is urged to tap $105 million surplus

King County Metro Transit should tap a $105 million surplus in its fleet-replacement fund, to lessen expected cuts to bus service, some County Council members said Tuesday.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

King County Metro Transit should tap a $105 million surplus in its fleet-replacement fund, to lessen expected cuts to bus service, some County Council members said Tuesday.

The figure was released Tuesday by county auditors, who felt the news was urgent enough to mention before finishing a broader review in September.

County leaders are trying to deal with cash shortages caused by the recession, which has caused sales-tax income to plummet. Metro bus service is subsidized by a sales tax of 9 cents per $10 purchase, plus federal grants and fares.

Metro is about $168 million short of what will be needed to sustain existing bus service for 2010-11, and add the new lines promised to voters in the 2006 Transit Now ballot measure.

Some of the $105 million surplus could partly close that gap.

"More money is being held in the Revenue Fleet Replacement Fund than is needed," and some should go to operations, said a summary by the King County Auditor's Office, which examined the issue.

Metro accepts the recommendation but hasn't affirmed $105 million as a correct figure, said Larry Brubaker, a senior county auditor.

Jim Jacobson, deputy general manager for Metro, said the agency has considered using some fleet funds for operations, during its own discussions about the budget crisis. The agency's policy is to replace buses about every 12 years, plus have cash in reserve, he said.

Councilmember Reagan Dunn, of Maple Valley, compared the report to having $1 in your pocket for lunch, then discovering $5 in the desk drawer. "It's a great deal," he said.

Auditors and politicians cautioned that if the county spends the $105 million all at once, Metro will wind up short again.

Metro has warned that drastic reductions lie ahead, because of the drop in sales-tax revenue. Past budgets were based on revenue growth, but sales taxes are declining.

Federal stimulus money and a 25-cent fare increase helped Metro fend off cuts for 2009.

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Tuesday's report is part of a $700,000 audit by the county, in collaboration with a team led by Booz Allen Hamilton. Council members requested the audit in hopes of squeezing more service from existing taxes.

Meanwhile, county officials have been considering tax increases for transit.

But Gov. Chris Gregoire, on Tuesday vetoed legislation to let counties put a $20 car-tab fee on the ballot for transit.

She did so because counties and cities already have authority to impose up to $100 in car-tab fees, in a local "transportation benefit district," according to a 2005 law, said Laura Lockard, a spokeswoman for Gregoire. The 2005 law was targeted toward road projects, but Gregoire thinks funds could be applied to transit, Lockard said.

However, the governor kept language allowing King County to enact a property tax for transit on Highway 520 and other corridors. Earlier this year, council members said they would likely send any such tax to a public vote, rather than impose it themselves.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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