Best of 2010: Metro’s high wage scale factors into its bus-service equation

King County Metro bus.

(Editor’s note: As the year ends, we are reprinting some of the best stories of 2010 by Crosscut’s writers. This story was originally published June 3.)

Another meeting of Metro’s stakeholder task force is on tap tonight, and there’s bound to be a buzz about one of the big issues in Metro’s operating budget — high labor costs. Metro posted for the task force and the public last Friday some important facts on the drivers’ wage scale. The bottom line: It’s high.

So far the main focus of task force attention has been on the big shortfall in Metro’s revenue caused by recession-dampened sales tax receipts. They cover most of the system’s operating costs. The total projected shortfall for 2010 through 2013 is about $600 million compared to the sales tax projection in hand just two years ago. Lower revenues mean less service. Which routes should shoulder the cuts in bus and trolley service — as much as a sixth of the total hours of service — and who among Metro’s patrons would suffer the biggest losses in service?

The level of service the system can actually provide in tight times depends on more than just revenue. It also depends on the costs of service — the operating expense for an hour of bus or trolley run time. Higher cost, less service. Lower cost, more service. Wages are 44% of the big-picture cost pie chart at Metro. Benefits are another 21%. So any growth in labor costs has a discernible impact on service.

Information Metro posted about the driver wage scale for 2009 is important, but it doesn’t document the entire wage and benefit picture. It talks only about drivers, not maintenance workers or managers. And it takes on only the wage scale, not the very significant question of benefits. Overtime pay, a big factor in overall employee earnings, also is missing.

Nor do the bare facts of the wage scale shed light on how either the King County Council or County Executive Dow Constantine intends to approach negotiations that are starting now with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587. Local 587 bargains for Metro drivers and maintenance employees. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Oct. 31.

Still, the driver wage scale information is news, especially for the comparisons Metro provided to other transit systems. Experienced drivers at the top of the wage scale in 2009 made $28.47 an hour, topping all but two cities on a list of 29 around the country — and including six other systems in Washington state. Nationally, only Boston and San Jose were higher than Metro. New York and San Francisco were lower. Community Transit (Snohomish County), Pierce Transit, Intercity Transit (Thurston County), C-Trans (Clark County), Spokane Transit, and Whatcom Transit (Bellingham) were lower by 8 percent to 25 percent.

An even bigger eye-opener was this: The five-year growth rate for Metro’s top wage scale (2004 to 2009) was 3.9 percent per year. On the comparison list, only transit operators in Las Vegas hit a bigger jackpot; but in that city, the top of scale for drivers is still below $20 per hour.

What was the wage progress of Metro’s transit drivers compared to inflation? For the years 2004 to 2008, the Consumer Price Index for the Seattle metro area rose by an average of 3.2 percent per year. The 2009 CPI increase was only .6 percent, and this year’s growth rate is even lower so far. So the growth of Metro drivers’ top scale has outpaced CPI. In all likelihood the wage picture for Metro drivers has significantly topped the wage gains of people who ride the buses and pay the fares, and likely also the wage gains of all ordinary citizens who pay the biggest share of Metro’s costs through sales taxes.

Especially considering the very-low inflation environment, the upcoming negotiations with Local 587 indeed present a big challenge to all concerned: politicians, patrons, and drivers, too, for whom the negotiations present a dilemma. If the wage scale continues to shoot up, service hours are going to be sacrificed, and drivers don’t get paid a thing for bus and trolley runs left in the bus barn.

Constantine shared in his Blueprint for Reform speech last March that in labor negotiations generally his administration would first discuss with the King County Council the parameters for bargaining and the identification of county goals and interests. Then, “Rather than negotiate in public we will meet with labor at the bargaining table to discuss our shared interests in an efficient and sustainable government.”

No word yet on what that might mean in the Local 587 negotiations, especially since important work rules and sick-leave policies also have to be bargained if recent performance audit recommendations are to be accomplished. State employees, meanwhile, already know that tight budget times mean no cost-of-living-adjustments are coming their way for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

All that against the backdrop of Metro’s critical reliance on its drivers to keep buses moving on schedule, to drive safely in all traffic and weather, to collect fares, and to manage the system’s literal interface with hundreds of thousands of patrons every day. There’s a strong case that Metro’s drivers are its single most critical asset of any kind — human or material — in the day-to-day provision of service.

How will the task force take note of all this? Hard to say. But, one hopes, subject to some big picture perspective.

It’s critically important to get Metro’s cost structure right so that its patrons can benefit from the maximum number of service hours the revenues can support.

But when all the dust settles, the most important outcome will be how the system routes and schedules will be re-designed across the service area for an optimum level of productivity in Metro’s core mission of carrying people.

For the money spent, how many people, on average, will board the bus or trolley for an hour of service? How many passenger miles, on average, will an hour of service carry? Those results, one hopes, should be at least as high or, better yet, higher still than they are today. And these bottom-line results must be sensibly integrated with some of the other values a transit system should meet, like minimum service levels off-peak or on weekends and or in less-dense neighborhoods.

A lot more is at play here than just the cost of running buses and trolleys.

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