Battery-powered buses signal new day for Metro

by: Henry Rosoff, Natasha Chen Updated:

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King County Metro will be purchasing 120 new, all-electric battery-powered buses during the next three years.

The county hopes the bus system will be on its way to being carbon free, quieter and more reliable. 

By purchasing this package of buses, King County Metro will be the nation’s largest operator of an all-electric fleet.

Metro currently has three battery-powered vehicles running routes in Bellevue. Twenty more of these buses will be arriving this year and in 2019. By 2020, there will be 120 of them in total, at a cost of about $90 million, not including charging stations.

The current buses, and the next 20 that have been ordered, have batteries that can fully charge in 10 minutes. The buses can then run for 25 miles.

“These are the fastest recharging electric vehicles in the world,” said Ryan Popple, CEO of Proterra, who makes the buses.

Metro is also testing longer-range buses that can run close to 200 miles on one charge, but they have to be charged more slowly overnight.

“In the end, we’re going to decide, are we going to go slow-charge or fast-charge, and make sure we have the best product on the road for our customers,” said Rob Gannon, General Manager for King County Metro Transit.

While current fast-charge buses operate on the Eastside, Gannon said they may put an overnight charging station in South King County to operate long-range buses.

On Tuesday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a commitment to purchase up to 73 of the 120 battery-powered vehicles from Proterra.

KIRO 7 asked Popple how they make sure passengers are safe if a battery combusts.

Popple said they ask all their new engineers the following question: “Are you designing this product to be safe enough for your youngest family member to go on a trip with your most elderly family member? Because that’s really the heart of what transit does. It’s universal mobility.”

Popple said Proterra has a team of people whose sole job is to try to destroy what the engineers create. They have tested the batteries by running spikes through them and applying heat to them, among other things.

Popple also said they make sure there cannot be damage to the battery pack that spreads into the passenger compartment. There are no batteries visible where people would sit.

KIRO 7 has previously investigated Metro’s electric trolley buses, which connect to wires above the street.  The new battery buses do not rely on the wire and pole system.

The wire and pole buses can disconnect from the wires above, causing delays as drivers wade into traffic to correct the problem.  One bus driver said he was even shocked by a bus.  So KIRO 7 asked if the battery-powered buses that “cut the cord” are a result of issues with the electric trolleys.

“Not at all,” said King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski.  “We've had a hiccup here or there, and we are getting that sorted out, but (if these new buses are) really about eliminating emissions, eliminating carbon and running a cleaner system that doesn't pollute the air.”

Dembowski said the new battery powered buses were tested on the Eastside and have been reliable and on time.  He insists the pole and cable electric trollies still make sense in the city for the foreseeable future, perhaps at least the 12 to 15 year lifespan of the buses.

One other issues KIRO 7 uncovered with the electric trollies was a lack of training when they were introduced.  Dembowski said the same mistake will not be made with the fleet of cord cutter buses.

“It will be a process to train up our mechanics, and build out the charging stations,” He said.  “But it is the wave of the future, and we've got to train up a new set of employees to take that over.”

The county said operating the new cordless electric buses will cost about the same as operating the current system.  Moreover, the electric buses are quieter than traditional buses and easier on the roads, which may save the county and various municipalities money in the long run.

 

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