King County Metro Transit could save $16 million to $23 million a year just by scheduling its buses more efficiently, according to a new audit report.

King County Metro Transit could save $16 million to $23 million a year just by scheduling its buses more efficiently, according to a new audit report.

Every dollar saved would lessen expected reductions in service. Executive Kurt Triplett has previously suggested cuts of 9 percent countywide, to deal with a recession-induced shortage of sales taxes to run the fleet.

Metro should use scheduling software to keep buses full. For instance, if a bus begins at a Sodo base and takes a north-end route, it should pick up people going back downtown, rather than run empty from Shoreline to Sodo. A single bus might switch between multiple routes, rather than keep the same route for an entire shift.

Also, the audit calls for shorter layovers, known as “recovery time,” at the end of a route before the driver makes a return trip. Metro buses are parked, in “recovery” mode 29 percent of the time, compared to 21 percent nationally, said the report, released this morning at a County Council committee meeting.

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Scheduling software could help reduce the turnaround time, and drivers would still get their breaks, by Kymber Waltmunson, a principal county auditor. That translates to fewer buses needed to give the same coverage.

“The changes we are talking about do not violate the labor agreement in any way,” she said, in response to council questions.

Today’s report is the second of three audit briefings. The review was done by the county audit department and outside consultants.

Metro carries almost 400,000 riders per weekday, and for a time was the nation’s fastest-growing big city bus agency.

“Transit has put a strong emphasis on service quality, high ridership, regional mobility, and operator working conditions. Although Transit considers cost efficiency, there is less focus in this area,” Waltmunson said.

In other areas, the report says millions more dollars might be collected by offering riders fewer discounts, and by creating fare-income goals. Fares cover only one-fifth of operating costs currently. On the other hand, higher fares limit ridership.

Metro did boost fares 25 cents this year and will add another quarter in February 2010.

The audit also flags the replacement of old electric trolleys (rubber-tired buses powered by overhead lines on steep Seattle hills) as a place to save money. Hybrid buses might save money, by removing wires, but there are other issues to consider, including emissions and noise, she said.

Earlier this year, auditors flagged $105 million in surplus funds that Metro has for long-term bus replacement, that could be spent for more service.

There have been no service cuts so far, because Metro saved cash by scrapping some low-priority capital projects, and because it has received federal stimulus funds to buy buses.

However, a risk remains that the county must curtail some of the service that former executive Ron Sims and council members promised during the “Transit Now” campaign of 2006, when voters passed a sales-tax increase.