Think tank again targets trends in C-Tran spending

C-Tran explains the numbers

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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A Seattle-based think tank criticizes C-Tran in a recent report, saying the transit agency spends at a rate growing faster than inflation despite declining ridership. C-Tran says the report lacks context and misrepresents the agency’s financial and operational performance.

The Washington Policy Center, which describes itself as a “an independent, nonprofit, think tank that promotes sound public policy based on free-market solutions” released the report in late March. Bob Pishue, director of the Coles Center for Transportation within the organization, said the think tank compiled the information to “inform the public and everybody else, their representatives and local government” of the agency’s financial situation.

“These types of numbers provided to the federal and state government by the transit agencies aren’t assembled in an easy-to-read format,” he said.

The report is an updated version of one produced by the think tank in 2012. The latest release echoes many of the same issues the group first raised four years ago.

Then, as now, in a response letter sent to The Columbian and shared with C-Tran’s board of directors, C-Tran executives say the report misrepresented financial and operational performance. The letter gives a point-by-point response to three issues raised by the think tank.

The 2012 report focused on C-Tran’s finances from 1995 to 2010. For the latest report, Pishue updated it with information from 2010-2014. According to the report, ridership decreased by 4 percent between 2010 and 2014 but operating costs increased by 23 percent, from $36.1 million to $44.4 million. That was more than double the inflation rate of 8.6 percent over the same period. Pishue attributed the cost increases to spending on personnel salaries, wages and benefits.

“There’s some questions here: Does C-Tran need all that money? Could they give a tenth of a percent back? I think all of those are valid questions,” Pishue said.

In its response, C-Tran acknowledged those figures were accurate, but said the report ignores the explanatory background.

According to the transit agency’s response, during those four years, fuel costs increased by 38 percent. Prices for tires, tubes and bus parts increased 112 percent, medical premiums for employees increased 37 percent and para-transit demands required hiring seven additional C-Van operators.

The think tank’s report states that C-Tran spent $34.1 million in 2014 on salaries, wages and benefits, compared with $10.3 million in 1996.

However, C-Tran officials said, Pishue’s 1996 salary figure was off by more than $1.6 million. The actual figure, they say, was just less than $12 million.

The agency also pointed out that it employed 14 percent more people in 2014 than 18 years earlier, increasing its service hours by 26.5 percent during that time. The agency also said medical premiums increased by 230 percent from 1997 to 2014.

Pishue’s report also said C-Tran spent more of its total operating budget (77 percent of operating costs) on wages and benefits than any other urban transit agency in the state.

In its rebuttal, C-Tran said the report “artificially depressed the wage costs at the state’s other urban transit systems by excluding the cost of service contracted out to other providers, most notably for para-transit service.” Once those costs are factored in, the five other major transit agencies — King County Metro, Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, Spokane Transit and Community Transit — “wage/benefit share of these other agencies is nearly identical to C-Tran’s.”