Metro's new 60-foot articulated battery-electric bus. (King County)
Metro's new 60-foot articulated battery-electric bus. (King County)

On Thursday, King County officials announced that new battery-electric buses would be hitting the streets late next year. The county is purchasing a total of 120 new battery-electric coaches from New Flyer, a Canadian-based manufacturer, to replace and expand the King County Metro fleet. The agreement will ensure that the first batch of 40 coaches are delivered in fall 2021. In the next year, Metro will also finalize the agreement for the second batch of 80 coaches that could be delivered beginning in the fall of 2022. The transit agency has a goal of attaining a 100% zero-emissions fleet by 2040.

“Today, we’re celebrating major progress toward our goal of transforming Metro to a zero-emission bus fleet, which is better not only for the environment but also for our customers,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in a statement. “These new buses will be able to serve routes all over King County, and especially in the southern part of the county, an area disproportionately affected by pollution. Working with New Flyer, we’ve procured 40 new buses that can handle anything we throw at them–quietly, efficiently, and fueled by clean power.”

Executive Constantine’s statement hints at the fact that South King County is also due for a new bus base by 2030. The bus base will be the first of the transit agency’s bus bases built to house and maintain 100% battery-electric buses. Three locations have been whittled down in Kent and Auburn to locate the new bus base. In the interim though, Metro will have to dispatch new battery-electric buses on some local routes in the southern portion of the county once delivered and operational from other bus bases.

Metro has indicated that the new battery-electric buses will be housed at an interim expansion area next to the South Base in Tukwila until more permanent space is secured. The interim expansion area will include necessary electric charging infrastructure to power the battery-electric fleet of up to 125 buses. Metro estimates that the cost for such charging infrastructure will range from $50 million to $60 million.

From its inception, Metro has operated a partially electric fleet with a mix of electric trolleybuses–which followed from the conversion of electric streetcars in Seattle in the middle of the 20th century, and now represent about 12% of the total fleet–and more recently diesel-electric hybrid coaches. The transit agency already operates hundreds of buses produced by New Flyer, most of which have been delivered in the past 10 years. The newer New Flyer fleet primarily consists of several 40-foot and 60-foot Xcelsior model variants as electric-trolleybuses and diesel-electric hybrid coaches. The batch of new battery-electric buses will be of the same model, dubbed Xcelsior CHARGE, and be capable of traveling about 140 miles on a single charge using 466 kWh batteries.

Metro has trialed battery-electric buses since 2016 with positive results. The transit agency partnered with Proterra, a California-based manufacturer, to procure 11 40-foot Catalyst coaches, which are currently in operation on the Eastside. The coaches are equipped with older short-range batteries typically capable of running 23 miles on a 10-minute charge. Newer versions of the Catalyst can travel much longer distances even on a short-range battery charge.

Proterra may have seemed a shoe-in for a contract with Metro to procure more battery-electric buses, however, the only option that the company offers is a 40-foot coach model. Metro’s system demands capacity to move riders, which means that 60-foot coaches were also needed. New Flyer fills that particular need, which gave the company an edge in winning the full procurement bid.

The first 40 battery-electric buses will be 60-foot articulated coaches capable of carrying up to 120 passengers, Metro said. The deal reached for that batch is worth around $50 million or about $1.25 million per coach. The second batch of coaches will consist of a mix with 20 that are 60-foot articulated coaches and 60 that are 40-foot coaches. The 40-foot coaches are capable of carrying up to 76 passengers and are estimated to cost about $925,000 per coach. The total cost for the second batch is anticipated to be about $80 million.

Metro is funding the bulk of this battery-electric bus procurement program, but additional funds are coming from several external sources. The Federal Transit Administration has awarded Metro a $9.1 million grant and the Washington State Department of Ecology has awarded an additional $10.9 as part of the Volkswagen settlement, which came about as a result of the company’s Clean Air Act violations. A further $3.3 million is pending allocation from the state legislature as part of the Green Transportation Capital Program.

In the years ahead, Metro plans to continue expanding electrification of its fleet. Part of that may be in more electric trolleybuses where it is sensible, but the transit agency has called for acquisition of an additional 250 battery-electric buses by 2025. King County leaders have indicated their desire to pursue faster electrification than Metro has planned. Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles made it a plank of her reelection campaign last year to speed full electrification by 2035–five years sooner than Metro’s planned timetable.

“We have been talking about the need to drastically reduce our carbon footprint for a long time,” said Councilmember Kohl-Welles in a statement on the battery-electric bus purchase. “Seeing these buses in person and knowing the benefit they bring to our communities is a reminder of how King County and Metro are leading the charge on climate change and as a result will continue to be a shining example to our region and nation as a whole. Generations are depending on us to act aggressively and urgently to do whatever we can right now to fight the worsening climate crisis. This is an important step.”

In the fall, Councilmember Kohl-Welles introduced legislation that would require Metro to meet her full electrification goal by 2035. So far, it has not been adopted as the county council grapples with the real logistical, operational, and financial challenges that the proposal presents. In recent month, discussions between Metro and the county council have been evolving about the feasibility of outright compliance with the proposed mandate. A staff memo to the King County Council highlighted several obstacles.

“Metro reports that in order to achieve a 2035 target, operate buses for the 12 years minimum required by the Federal Transit Administration, and meet transit service needs, charging infrastructure would be needed starting in 2023 to ensure all newly accepted bus fleets can be zero-emission,” the memo stated. “Metro’s current fleet and infrastructure planning do not align with this timeline and would likely require retiring buses from the hybrid fleet earlier than 12 years. Metro also notes that meeting the 2035 target would require significant near term budget investments such that service reductions would be required.”

The memo raised a variety of financial considerations. One of those is that Metro does not yet have a complete plan in how to fully finance transition to a zero-emissions fleet. Another is that the transit agency has not come up with a fully funded plan to realize its Metro Connects long-range plan that would increase service countywide by 2040 an additional 50%, providing a much more expansive frequent and accessible transit network. If that was not enough, the memo noted that the life-cycle costs for transition to battery-electric buses are about 6% more than more conventional alternatives, not accounting for added electric charging infrastructure costs. The analysis is largely predicated on an electrification evaluation from 2017, which could use a further update to reflect more current realities.

Some colleagues on the county council also wondered if the an outright mandate might hamper the environmental good that transit already provides from a land use and operational standpoint. Would front-loading expenses to fully electrify the fleet slow Metro’s ability to grow service sooner and capture more transit riders? Acknowledging the totality of these issues, Councilmember Kohl-Welles has stepped back a bit on the mandate, instead settling on an amendment to set the 2035 timing as a goal rather than an outright mandate. It also sets electrification goals for a 100% zero-emissions ridershare and 67% zero-emissions paratransit fleet by 2030.

The new electric-battery buses, for their part, will be a welcome addition to the fleet, offering cleaner air and quieter buses for communities. Metro has a lot of work on its hands, though, as it implements bus base expansion and updates its frameworks, long-range plans, and policies, all of which will be critical in further charting the course in additional fleet electrification.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.