King County Metro has received its first 40-foot battery-electric New Flyer bus. The agency has already taken possession of 60-foot articulated variants from the company. Metro says that the new 40-foot buses are capable of carrying 35 passengers and running 220 miles on a single charge.
King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski hailed the latest zero-emissions development and said he’s looking forward to further progress. “I’m excited to continue the implementation of our zero-emission bus plan. It’s taken a lot of thoughtful work from a lot of participants over several years and I am confident that it is the right way to go,” he said. “It sets us up well for significant federal dollars to help bring the vision to fruition. I also firmly believe that it will help us present an attractive plan to further fund Metro Connects to the voters in the near future. Voters want zero-emission buses and I believe [they] will be more inclined to fund a plan that is based upon this technology.”
In a video, Metro showed off the new bus and highlighted some changes that passengers may notice. “There’s a minor seating change at the rear that should decrease boarding and deboarding time, where we’ve shifted some of the seats so that they’re actually aisle-facing to allow some more standing room and easier boarding and deboarding for passengers as on and off the bus,” said Will Haber, a vehicle procurement administrator for Metro. Haber also said that the first bus will go through a thorough testing process and item checklist to make sure it’s sound for general use next year.
The initial 40-foot battery-electric New Flyer bus is part of a 40-vehicle order. Deliveries will be happening from this fall through early next year. This is part of a larger set of orders that Metro has with New Flyer, which is expected to deliver many more battery-electric buses. The first 40 of the 60-foot articulated variant started arriving in April.
Metro says that the battery-electric buses will be charged at the South Base where pantographs and plug-in stations are to be located. Those should come online later this fall. As for charging facilities in the field, Metro told The Urbanist that they “will evaluate the merits of building charging stations in the field.” Should they offer improved “resiliency and operational flexibility,” the agency may install them in the future.
Performance-wise, Metro told The Urbanist that testing has shown battery-electric buses to operate well on hills and steep grades. So they should be able to operate across a wide spectrum of routes.
Metro has also committed to retrofitting and expanding bus bases to accommodate battery-electric buses. The main base initially for the new battery-electric buses is an interim bus base near the current South Base campus in Tukwila. But that will change over time as the agency ramps up to convert more than 1,000 buses to battery-electric. The agency has even committed to a new base in South King County in either Auburn or Kent that will be fully electric, but the timing is still up in the air given pandemic impacts.
New funding proposed by Executive Dow Constantine should help with this. A supplemental biennial budget proposal would allocate $65.8 million toward zero-emissions fleet efforts, including $63 million for bus base charging facilities. Another $1 million is allocated to planning and studying zero-emissions work and $350,000 to conduct preliminary planning for zero-emissions King County Water Taxi vessels.
The next full biennial budget proposal is expected to further develop zero-emissions fleet capital plans to realize full conversion by 2035. Among key aspects of the plans will be full electrification of the South Base Annex by 2028, further planning for bus base conversion, supportive facilities at bus layover areas in the field, and replacement of hybrid buses to fully electric.
Going forward from 2024 and beyond, Metro has a policy to only procure zero-emissions buses to reach the long-term 2035 goal. A final procurement hybrid buses is scheduled in 2023 for the RapidRide G Line, which will involve 13 60-foot articulated hybrid buses.
Electric trolleybuses are a traditional type of all-electric vehicles in Metro’s fleet and further expansion of them is planned. The agency reports a modest portfolio of projects that are in the planning and development stages. Of the most immediacy are new overhead catenary wires to be strung up on NE 43rd Street and 12th Avenue NE to serve U District Station as well as 3rd Avenue and Denny Way.
Over the next six years, other electric trolleybus projects include: acquisition of 30 additional trolleybuses beginning in 2025; Route 48 electrification by adding trolleybus wires on the 23rd Avenue corridor from E John Street to E Jefferson Street and S Jackson Street to Rainier Avenue S; RapidRide J Line electrification on various streets in the University District; and E Pine Street from 15th Avenue E to E Madison Street in Capitol Hill.
However, there are real challenges and difficult decisions that King County officials face as they pursue electrification. The pandemic has affected financials — even amid large federal funding relief measures for transit — and ridership, which has fallen from its highs. That has made planning future equipment needs and service levels in the interim a bit shaky. The pandemic also led to officials to halt a countywide ballot measure that would raise additional revenues for implementation of the Metro Connects long-range plan for increased service and assets like bus bases and equipment.
Ultimately, the cost of electrification is not inexpensive and a report suggests that the net number of buses may be reduced going forward even as Metro is supposed to vastly expand the reach and frequency of service. All of that hinges on more funding, for which the state has largely failed to be a serious partner in, but that could change. The federal government may also come through with large grants for transit expansion and electrification with a favorable Biden administration and Congress. Action by the King County Council to finally proceed ahead with a new ballot measure to fund could also be on the horizon.
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.