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King County Metro audit: What it means for the region

A Sept. 15 audit report reveals King County Metro transit could spend less and save more through better planning and data analysis.

The audit, which was performed by the King County Auditor's Office, comes at a time when Metro is finding itself short on funding and looking for ways to achieve cost savings. The agency is projecting a $213 million budget gap over the next two years.

The audit proposes an adjustment to the agency's contributions to its fleet replacement fund, changes to Metro's fare structure, and a closer look at the free services provided in downtown Seattle, among other things. It identifies ways to save money and mostly avoid service cuts.

"People need to know that we have transmitted to King County Metro the importance of maintaining transit service in South King County," said Jeanne Burbidge, Federal Way City Council member.

Cost savings

King County Metro transit serves more than 100 million customers annually. It operates roughly 1,300 vehicles. A variety of buses, electric trolleys and street cars are used in the agency's operations.

Each year, Metro channels funding into its Revenue Fleet Replacement Fund. The amount generally exceeds what is needed for yearly replacements and expansions of the fleet, according to the audit. A one-time savings of $105 million could be captured, and the fleet still maintained, by removing that amount from the replacement fund, the audit found.

Increased revenue

The audit proposes adjusting the fare structure. Up to $51 million a year in revenue could be made if Metro reworked its fare schedule. Decreasing discounts offered to seniors, youths and riders needing a transfer is proposed. This would increase revenue, according to the audit.

Currently, these discounted fares are significantly greater than those offered by peer agencies and those required by the Federal Transit Administration, according to the audit.

Federal Way City Council member Jeanne Burbidge, who also serves on the King County Regional Transportation Committee, said she has not witnessed support of this recommendation.

"I have not seen much interest directly in changing those fares," she said.

More clearly identifying the ratio between operational costs, and the amount of costs recovered through fares, would also benefit Metro, according to the audit.

Equal service

Currently, Metro provides free services within downtown Seattle. The city provides some compensation for the program, but the audit found Metro was unable to support, fully explain or provide backup documentation for the formula it uses to claim reimbursement from the City of Seattle for this service. What Seattle pays to Metro does not come close to covering the agency's costs to provide the free rides, Burbidge said.

"There's a significant amount of money that isn't changing hands there that could help to balance the deficit," Burbidge said.

Next steps

The Metropolitan King County Council and King County Regional Transportation Committee have yet to publicly weigh in on the auditor's suggestions. The process of addressing the concerns surfaced in the audit could take several years, Burbidge said. The sooner Metro can adjust its way of doing business so as to best serve all its customers, the better it will be for those relying on the agency's services, she said.

"So far, they are saying this is going to take a while," Burbidge said. "I don't believe it should take perhaps as long as they say it will take."

Learn more

To read the full audit report, visit www.kingcounty.gov/operations/auditor/Reports/Year/2009.aspx.

The audit covers six general areas: Financial and capital planning, bus service development, bus operator and transit police staffing, Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit, vehicle maintenance and ridership data. It was requested last year by the Metropolitan King County Council after a significant drop in sales tax revenues, which partially support King County Metro.

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