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Originally published Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 12:13 AM

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Audit report finds ways Metro Transit could save money

King County Metro Transit could save $16 million to $23 million a year by scheduling its buses more efficiently, according to a new audit report.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

King County Metro Transit could save $16 million to $23 million a year by scheduling its buses more efficiently, according to a new audit report.

But that's easier said than done. Metro often builds cushion into the schedules so that if a bus is delayed by traffic or some other problem on one trip, it can still return on time.

Any dollars actually saved would lessen expected reductions in service. County Executive Kurt Triplett has previously suggested cuts of 9 percent countywide, to deal with a recession-induced shortage of sales taxes to run the fleet.

Metro should improve its use of scheduling software to keep buses full, said an audit summary, released Tuesday to a County Council committee.

For instance, if a bus begins at a Sodo base and takes a north-end route, it should pick up people on its last run downtown, rather than run empty from Shoreline to Sodo. A single bus might switch among multiple routes, rather than keep the same route for an entire shift.

Also, the audit calls for shorter layovers at the end of a route before the driver makes a return trip. That way, fewer buses could provide the same coverage. Metro buses are parked in "recovery" mode 29 percent of the time, compared to 21 percent nationally, said the report.

Drivers could still get breaks, said Kymber Waltmunson, a principal county auditor. "The changes we are talking about do not violate the labor agreement in any way."

The driver contract requires a minimum five-minute break between trips, but drivers often have longer, said Kevin Desmond, Metro general manager. Layovers average 17 minutes, according to data posted at the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 Web site; local President Paul Bachtel was not available for comment Tuesday.

Unless Metro carefully manages shorter layovers, Desmond said the change could reduce on-time bus reliability for customers and damage driver morale. "They are the most important person, as to how the rider perceives the quality of the service," he said.

Metro carried 364,510 riders on the average weekday in July.

"Transit has put a strong emphasis on service quality, high ridership, regional mobility, and operator working conditions. Although Transit considers cost efficiency, there is less focus in this area," said Waltmunson, the auditor.

The audit says millions of dollars could be collected by increasing fares beyond what Metro now collects. The agency raised fares 25 cents this year, bringing adult fares to $2.50 for a peak trip between Seattle and any suburb. Another 25-cent increase is planned in February.

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The audit also says electric powered "trolley" buses could be retired, to save up to $9 million a year, largely by removing overhead wires. Hybrid diesel-electric buses might be substituted.

But County Councilmember Larry Phillips, of Seattle, said electric trolleys reduce noise and pollution in neighborhoods compared to fossil-fueled buses, so cost isn't the only issue. As the region pursues dense transit-oriented development in cities, Metro also should provide quiet, "development-oriented transit," he said.

Meanwhile, Desmond said Metro seeks federal funding for quiet, experimental battery-powered buses that can quickly recharge from overhead wires and then travel beyond the grid for 30 miles — for example, a No. 70 or similar bus might continue past its wires in the University District, out to Lake City or farther.

Auditors earlier said that $105 million in surplus funds — money that Metro was saving for long-term bus replacement — could be spent on more service. A full 300-page report is due in mid-September.

Metro has not been forced to cut service yet, because it saved cash by scrapping some low-priority capital projects and because of federal stimulus money to buy buses.

However, a risk remains that the county will need to cut some bus hours that former Executive Ron Sims and the council promised when voters approved the Transit Now sales-tax increase three years ago.

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

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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