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

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Guest: King County Metro is in a bind

Reliance on ever-higher subsidies is not sustainable over the long run and Metro Transit needs to innovate. Vanpool represents one creative idea, writes guest columnist Steve Marshall.

Special to The Times

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KING County Metro is in a bind. 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.

Reliance on ever-higher subsidies is not sustainable over the long run. Metro’s routes need to be more self-sustaining, fares need to increase with protections for low-income riders and more innovations need to be tested and incorporated. As one example, the already successful King County Metro Vanpool program could be significantly expanded with innovations in outreach, incentives, scheduling and oil-free options.

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.

Several recent reports have made recommendations to Metro, including ones from the King County Regional Transit Task Force, the Municipal League of King County and an internal audit. Metro has implemented most of the recommendations, including more transparent measures on performance, on costs and on emphasizing high-density routes. And yet, the major factors for Metro’s financial crisis remain daunting.

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. One of the first employers to encourage the electric vanpools, called Metropool, was Seattle Children’s, which needed better transit options for its expanded Laurelhurst complex.

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 leading the nation with Metropool. Last March, transportation experts from around the world were invited to Ann Arbor, Mich., to discuss how to provide better urban mobility.

Organized by the SMART program at the University of Michigan, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, I attended along with the co-founder of Zipcar, professors, environmentalists, foundation officials and venture capitalists. It was a tough crowd that had heard everything. But when King County’s Metropool program was outlined, it sparked an enthusiastic response.

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.

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.

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