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King County is going electric with 100 battery buses

King County purchased 100 electric buses in 2017 to start its transition to an all electric bus fleet. (King County)

In the 1970s, King County introduced transit buses with wheelchair lifts. In the ’90s, Metro introduced diesel hybrid buses, which were better on fuel and the environment. And today, King County Metro will make another major change to its bus fleet — battery buses. Metro is going electric.

That’s the example laid out by King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski as King County Metro Transit announced Tuesday that it is moving its transit system toward an all-electric fleet. The transition starts with the purchase of 100 battery buses. It will make the Seattle region the largest transit system using the electric vehicles in the nation.

Related: Seattle considers electric bicycles for its bike share

“The other transit agencies look to us for leadership,” Dembowski said, noting that Metro is among the 10 largest transit systems in America. “They’re cleaner, they’re quieter, they’re cost effective and we are going to be the national leader of deploying electric buses.

“We are going to make a major investment in that direction by acquiring more than 100 all battery buses — zero emission buses — to put in our fleet,” he added. “And by the year 2020, just three years out, that will make us the largest fleet operator in the country of battery buses.”

Dembowski is the chair of King County’s transportation committee. In 2016, he introduced a motion to the county council to put King County Metro — the county’s transit operator — on a path toward a zero-emissions fleet. The motion passed. That means the county’s transit system will eventually be carbon neutral. But it won’t happen all at once. Metro’s plan is to phase in the new battery buses to take over for the diesel hybrid buses currently in use.

Battery buses

Metro has been testing all-electric buses, aka battery buses, in the Eastgate area in Bellevue over the past year. Those buses were manufactured by Proterra. The electric buses have received some criticism during this period, but Dembowski says the battery buses were, overall, a success.

“They’ve proven very successful,” Dembowski said. “They are clean and quiet and cost effective. They cost less to operate than a diesel bus.”

But Dembowski notes that the current electric bus technology will be able to handle around 70 percent of Metro’s bus service. To cover the rest, the technology will have to improve, he said.

“As it improves over time, we hope to get to an all-electric, zero-emission fleet,” Dembowski said.

Each battery bus comes with a $750,000 price tag. Dembowski says that’s comparable with the current diesel hybrids, which run about $1 million each.

“What you got to also account for is the infrastructure to run them,” he said. “It takes a charging station and operating costs. Overall, they cost about the same as our current system to operate.

“And we’re not subject to volatile diesel prices,” Dembowski added. “Diesel prices are kind of low right now from a historical average. We’re paying about $2 a gallon. But in the past we’ve paid up to $5 a gallon. With the lower operating cost, we think we will be able to save dollars and deploy more service hours. It’s cleaner transit and it’s more transit.”

The manufacturer will deliver the electric buses as they are produced. Metro will phase in the battery buses as the current fleet ages out. Metro’s current diesel hybrid buses average about 12-15 years of use. After that, they are generally auctioned off for salvage. Instead of buying new diesel hybrid buses, one-by-one, the electric buses will take over.

King County Metro currently has about 1,400 diesel hybrid buses. But not for long.

“We have a very high level of confidence (electric buses) will meet our needs in an effective way,” Dembowski said. “They offer some benefits beyond zero emissions, which is really good. They are lighter weight — they don’t have a big diesel engine sitting over the back end. That means they aren’t as hard on our streets and roads … we actually think the impact to our city and rural roads will be lessened. They are also quieter … they actually have a lighter footprint overall.”

Dembowski hopes that King County’s move will put other transit agencies across the country on a similar path. As he pointed out with Metro’s previous implementation of hybrid buses and wheelchair accessible vehicles, Metro was an early adopter of next-level technology.

“When we make a commitment like this, other transit agencies follow,” Dembowski said. “When we make a purchase like this, it builds up the infrastructure of the companies that make these buses. And it sends a signal that we have confidence this technology can serve a transit system. So the positive benefits of this in terms of a cleaner environment and addressing climate change ripple, frankly, throughout the country and beyond our shores.”

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