King County Metro is in a Bind – Electric Metropool the Answer?

Originally published Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 4:08 PM

By Steve Marshall

When the county’s $20 congestion fee on car tabs expires next year, Metro may have to cut bus service by 17 percent, which is why Metro is looking to the Legislature to allow the car-tab fee to continue or to provide another option for local revenue.

Metro’s financial problems are mostly a result of four factors: Fares cover less than 30 percent of operating costs, so more riders mean more subsidies; sales taxes that provide most of Metro’s subsidies have fallen flat; Metro serves too many high-cost, low-density routes that are politically difficult to cut; and 82 percent of Metro’s operating costs are for salaries and benefits, which are also difficult to modify.

New approaches are necessary, and Metro’s Vanpool represents a program that is working. The program currently makes more than 3 million passenger trips a year with 1,170 commuter vans. It is the most flexible, economic, fastest and greenest way to move a Metro transit rider.

Our region’s jobs are dispersed. Many of our iconic companies employ people outside Seattle city limits, including Boeing, Microsoft, Costco, REI, Paccar and Weyerhaeuser. This makes flexible transportation essential. Even within the city, many key employers are not located in the downtown core, such as Starbucks, Seattle Children’s hospital and the University of Washington. Vanpools can rapidly respond to regional changes in employment.

Vanpools are more economical. First, the volunteer drivers are not paid (although they can use the vehicles for personal use on weekends), saving the majority of operating costs. Second, unlike full buses at peak times, vanpools do not return empty — they are full both inbound and outbound.

Vanpools are better for the environment and are becoming even greener. On average, a Metro diesel bus gets only 44 miles per gallon per passenger. A standard vanpool with 5 to 10 passengers gets 100 to 200 miles per gallon per passenger. Metro spends 94 cents to carry a passenger one mile on a bus, compared with 16 cents per vanpool rider, according to the 2011 National Transit Database of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Metro recently added 25 electric cars, Nissan Leafs, to its vanpool fleet, which get 500 miles per gallon per passenger — 10 times better than a bus for the environment and far less costly per passenger mile to operate.  Although Metropool’s Leafs can carry only 5 passengers, larger extended-range electric vans are now being marketed by Via Motors and others that can carry 12 to 15 passengers and can get 1,200 to 1,500 miles per gallon per passenger.

Metro is on to something. It won’t solve all of Metro’s problems, but it is the kind of new approach that needs to be part of the solution.

Read the full article here.

Steve Marshall is executive director of the Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions. He is also a member of the King County Regional Transit Task Force.