Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WA Transit Agencies Lag on Fare-box Recovery Ratios

by Matt Rosenberg December 9th, 2013

Washington state public transit agencies in 2012 badly lagged the national average in paying their own way for operating costs. Reports from the Washington State Department of Transportation and the National Transit Database show respectively that the 30 Evergreen State public transit agencies received just 13.6 percent of their operating revenues from fare payments versus an aggregate of 33 percent for all 824 transit agencies reporting nationwide. However, in Washington, transit system van pools had a remarkably strong financial performance, earning a full four-fifths of operating costs from riders.

The so-called fare-box recovery ratio is increasingly important at a time of shrinking federal and state support for transit systems, and continuing risk of tax fatigue among voters who may or may not support transit service continuance or expansion through approval of dedicated sales tax streams and various fees.

For the 50 busiest metro region transit systems nationwide the aggregate fare-box recovery ratio was 36 percent in 2012 versus 28 percent overall for King County Metro, and 23 percent overall for Sound Transit. The 2012 fare-box recovery ratio for Community Transit in Snohomish County was 26 percent; Pierce Transit’s was 19 percent, and the King County Ferry District, 22 percent. The Puget Sound region 2012 transit agency performance reports include varied indicators and are among a slew that have just been added to the U.S. Region 10 archive of the National Transit Database (NTD), a service of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration.

The Seattle region transit providers have all improved their fare-box recovery ratios in the last six years; three percent for Pierce Transit since 2007, five percent for the King County Ferry District since then, seven percent for Community Transit, eight percent for Sound Transit and 11 percent for King County Metro.

Sound Transit has by board resolution set minimum fare-box recovery ratios of 20 percent for bus operations, 23 percent for commuter rail and 40 percent for light rail. It has exceeded the minimum for buses for at least several years running, likewise for commuter rail. The state transit report shows 2012 ratios for ST were 26 percent for commuter rail and 25 percent for light rail, the latter far short of the 40 percent minimum target. However ST says in its latest available fare recovery report, for 2011, that the 40 percent benchmark for light rail won’t apply until it extends Central Link light rail system north to the University of Washington and “ridership matures beyond the start-up mode.” That extension is to be completed in 2016.

Across all transit agencies some of the largest operating expenses are typically salaries and benefits for drivers and mechanics, and fuel. Administration also comprises part of operating costs. Capital expenses such as new buses, trains, tracks and stations and other facilities are considered separately under the “capital budget,” and not included in any calculations of operating costs.

In Washington, as elsewhere, financial self-sufficiency is markedly better for one transit mode, van pooling. Several factors are responsible including commuter-provided labor and transit agency mandates requiring full or near-full cost coverage through fares. According to WSDOT’s “2012 Summary of Public Transportation” in Washington, aggregate fare-box recovery ratio for transit system van pools in the state last year was a robust 81 percent versus 25 percent for light rail, 26 percent for commuter rail, three percent for “demand-response” or custom personal transit service for the elderly and infirm, and 23 percent for “fixed route” or bus service. Although King County’s overall fare-box recovery ratio for 2012 was just 28 percent, its vanpool operation’s was 97 percent.

One notable high performer in Washington was the bus operation of Pullman Transit in the college town of Pullman, Wash., home to Washington State University. The 2012 fare-box recovery ratio for Pullman Transit bus runs was a strikingly high 62 percent, compared to the next highest for buses only, Kitsap Transit at 30 percent. This is due to a high percentage of student transit users and the lowest operating costs per passenger trip for any bus operation in the state, of $1.95, versus a statewide average for that transit mode of $4.75 per passenger trip.

Fix route (bus) operating costs per passenger trip for King County Metro in 2012 were $4.46, Pierce Transit $5.40, Community Transit in Snohomish County at $9.19, and Everett Transit at $6.02.

There’s some additional eye-opening data for transit systems nationwide in the “2012 National Transit Summaries and Trends” report from the National Transit Database, which is dated October 2012 but was only posted online in late November. That has to do with what are called “load factors,” or percentage of seats actually occupied by paying passengers, on average.

Load factors are measured at a designated optimal point in a transit route after most riders boardings have occurred but before most debarkments begin. Load factors are typically far higher during peak morning and evening transit travel times but much lower in off-peak hours.

Across all reporting transit systems in the United States in 2012, bus routes had a combined load factor of just 11.2 percent compared to 25.2 percent for light rail, 27.5 for “heavy rail” transit and 35 percent for commuter rail.

The Washington state 2012 transit report from WSDOT did not include load factors for transit agencies or for transit modes.

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6 Responses to “WA Transit Agencies Lag on Fare-box Recovery Ratios”

  1. Any Name says:

    King County Metro does not have the highest operating costs/passenger trip as stated. In fact, it is below the statewide average at $4.46 per passenger trip, as shown in the table on page 145 of the report referenced in the article. The $13.09 figure sited is the operating costs/revenue mile.

  2. Brian Bradfield says:

    Concerning the fare recovery, I have just retired as a Metro and Sound Transit bus driver, so I guess I can now tell it like it is. Fact, we are only allowed to ask for the fare once; anymore and we WILL be disciplined. If a fare evader complains 3 times that we asked for his fare, we can be fired. The fare evaders know this and take advantage of it. I drove now and again the 550 from Bellevue, at times over 30% of the passengers did not pay their fare.

  3. Thank you for that correction, Any Name. I mistakenly transposed figures from one column over (operating costs per revenue hour) for the bus system operating costs per passenger trip, for the Central Puget Sound transit systems named. I have updated that section of the story with the correct figures. And Brian, thank you for that valuable firsthand material. It sounds from what you say that fare evasion is part of the puzzle too. It would be good to know what official agency estimates of that are. I myself have seen that transfers are rarely checked for expiration, so there is likely fare revenue being left on the table there, as well.

  4. Whomever says:

    I don’t think you’re correct in how load factors are determined (i.e. “at optimal points”).

    Instead, I believe a system’s load factor is the ratio of two reported items of aggregate data: “total passenger-miles” divided by “total revenue vehicle miles”. That, in essence, reduces to passengers per vehicle, which is what a load factor is — a metric of utilization. (Since the bus fleet is not uniform, some ‘tweaking’ for the avg. no. of seats per vehicle may enter into the calculation.)

  5. Whomever,

    Thank you, I’ll look into that further. If you have any additional information on load factor calculation methods, down the line, feel free to post here or send along to my email address under “contact” in the masthead of this blog.

  6. An interested party says:

    Curious that you show nothing about Washington State Ferries in this list. You cover commuter rail, normal bus, and a bunch of ‘oddball’ transit types like vanpools, “demand-response”, and “fixed route” transit systems, all of which pretty much fail miserably at farebox recovery. Even the one you pointed as as ‘best’ (Pullman Transit) only hit a 62% farebox recovery ratio.

    So why ignore the largest transit operator in the state? WSF moves some 24 million people a year and hasn’t been under a 65% farebox recovery ratio in years. They get slammed with ignorant “waste on the Water” articles, but their work destroys all of these other “transit” agencies.

    Why ignore WSF? Didn’t fit a preconceived notion of how bad the state is or something? You must have a really good reason for leaving out this information.