The C is for Crank

Conservative Group Misrepresents Numbers on Bus Costs, Ridership

By Erica C. Barnett February 10, 2011

In a post at the conservative Washington Policy Center's blog, WPC transportation director Michael Ennis claims that costs for King County Metro have skyrocketed since 2006 while ridership has remained flat. Citing figures from the American Public Transit Association and Metro's web site, Ennis writes:
Through the third quarter 2010 (which is the most recent data available), Metro’s average ridership declined to about 276,000 passenger trips per weekday, which is very near the average daily ridership in 2006!

But Metro’s operating budget has gone the other way.

In 2006, Metro’s operating budget was about $464 million. In 2010, Metro’s operating budget was about $605 million. So Metro officials are serving nearly the same amount of daily riders as they did in 2006 but spending nearly a third more money to do it.

King County officials and some state lawmakers think Metro needs more money. But the data shows that ridership is actually falling, while expenses are rising. Worse, Metro officials have not even come close to delivering their promises from the previous two sales tax increases in 2000 and 2006.

King County Metro does not need more money. King County Metro needs more accountability.

The problem is, Ennis isn't comparing the right numbers. His bus ridership figure accurately reflects total ridership on Metro buses (which have indeed gone down), but his operating budget number includes funding to operate Sound Transit buses and trains (light rail didn't exist in 2006).

Ennis also failed to include Metro's fleet of electric trolley buses, which account for 20 percent of the agency's total bus trips, or about 75,000 a year.

For an accurate comparison, Ennis would have to either include ridership on Sound Transit routes in his ridership number or exclude the cost of running Sound Transit routes from his cost number. (He also ignores inflation over the last five years and gets his $605 million figure by dividing the two-year operating budget in half, but those are minor issues by comparison to discounting light rail operations).

Taking away the cost of running Sound Transit brings the cost number down to about $580 million---more than $464 million, obviously, but an increase easily explained by inflation and the 2006 Transit Now initiative, which funded new bus-rapid transit lines. Conversely, including the average weekday Sound Transit ridership raises the daily, third-quarter ridership number to a around 346,000---a 29 percent increase over 2006!

True, taken on its own, bus ridership is down. (It increased dramatically between 2006 and 2008, then declined by 8.3 percent between 2008 and 2010). Metro attributes this to several factors, including the loss of 87,000 jobs in King County during the recession, four fare increases in four years, lower gas prices, and the opening of light rail, which lowered ridership by 1.2 million rides a year.

In an email, Ennis said he "didn't include or exclude anything," and said I should check the source of his numbers. Metro confirmed that the numbers didn't include Sound Transit ridership but did include Sound Transit costs.
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