As King County Metro considers a fare hike, the agency gets roughly 31 percent of its operating costs from fares, with the rest coming from taxes. That number meets Metro’s target but is lower than the national average.
It’s no secret that bus fares don’t pay for the full cost of a bus ride. Anyone who’s voted on a transportation levy knows that.
Transit systems are funded by a mixture of fares and tax money. Fares cover almost none of most transit systems’ capital expenses — the costs of building a system — and only a portion of operating expenses — the costs of running a system.
With King County Metro currently pondering a fare hike, how much of its operating costs are covered by those fares, and how much comes from taxes?
Metro brought in nearly $160 million in fare revenues in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, enough to cover about 31 percent of operating costs. That ratio — known in transit-speak as farebox recovery — is slightly lower than the national average, meaning Metro is slightly more dependent on taxes (as opposed to fares) than the average transit agency.
The ratio for all transit agencies nationally was 36 percent in 2015, according to Federal Transit Administration data.
Sound Transit’s light rail, while grabbing headlines for the tax hikes that fund its construction, actually draws more of its operating expenses from fares — about 40 percent — than either Metro or the average transit agency.
Sound Transit calculates its numbers separately for each service. Its farebox recovery for commuter rail and express buses are both around 30 percent.
All transit agencies have target farebox-recovery numbers that they try to meet, one way to measure whether buses and trains are running mostly full and efficiently.
There are only a few cities in the world — Hong Kong and Singapore are the most prominent — that have farebox-recovery ratios higher than 100 percent, meaning that fares fully fund operating costs. Those cities tend to be very compact with heavily used transit systems and very low private-car ownership.
Metro’s target is 25 percent — they want one out of every four dollars to come from fares — and they’ve exceeded it every year since the target was adopted in 2011.
They’re currently considering a fare increase that would eliminate the extra charge for longer multizone trips, but would either raise the standard fare by a quarter to $2.75, or raise the peak rush-hour fare by a quarter to $3. The Metropolitan King County Council will consider the fare changes in June and a decision is expected later this year.
Metro’s farebox recovery has also increased every year since 2007.
A higher ratio means that a transit system is busy and people using buses are the ones paying for buses. Is that good? The answer probably depends on how much you ride the bus.
Using tolls to fund highways similarly ensures that people using the roads are the ones paying for them. But, at least among drivers, tolls are wildly unpopular.
In Maryland, lawmakers this year repealed a longstanding state law that required transit agencies to have a farebox-recovery ratio of at least 35 percent, arguing that the mandate discouraged investment in transit systems.
The highest farebox recovery ratio in the U.S. likely belongs to the Bay Area’s rail system, BART, which collects more than 75 percent of its operating costs in fares. That’s a result of a heavily used system with high fares (the average fare is $3.67, the highest is $15.70), with no weekly or monthly passes.
The Seattle Transit Riders Union objects to Metro’s farebox recovery target, arguing that having to meet such a standard leads to fare boosts.
“Public transit is a public good,” the Transit Riders Union wrote in 2015, the last time Metro was considering a fare hike. “The more it expands and the more it is used, the more everyone benefits, and so we believe public transit should be publicly and progressively funded.”
Information in this article, originally published May 15, 2017 was corrected May 16, 2017. A previous version of this story misstated the date when the Metropolitan King County Council is expected to decide on a possible Metro bus fare increase. The County Council will consider the changes in June, but a decision isn’t expected until later this year.