King County officials announced Jan.10 that Metro Transit has committed to converting to an all-electric bus fleet by 2020.

The changeover will begin this year with the purchase of 20 battery-electric buses from Proterra, with eight of them set to begin operation in Bellevue in 2017, according to an announcement from King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office.

Up to 73 40-foot all-electric buses will be purchased from Proterra over the four-year rollout period, at a cost of $55 million. Each bus has a range just under 25 miles and can recharge at a proprietary station in 10 minutes.

The first buses will appear in outlying suburbs in the Greater Seattle metro region, with the Bellevue buses likely to be followed by buses in south county cities like Auburn and Federal Way. A Jan. 12 press release from County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer’s office implied buses would be placed in those cities, without providing concrete details, and indeed the County Council is in discussions to put the next buses in south county stations, Councilmember Rod Dembowski told City Living Seattle in a recent interview.

Dembowski’s office authored a bill, passed in April, directing Metro Transit to study the feasibility of converting to an exclusively electric fleet. Previously, Metro was on track to move to a fleet comprised of both electric and diesel hybrid vehicles by 2018. He estimated that the new electric buses will make their way onto Seattle routes in about two to three years.

Dembowski said the city of Seattle was a “strong funding partner” in Metro and that his office’s push to move Metro to an exclusively electric fleet sprouted out of a conversation in early 2016 with Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien about carbon emissions and the rapid melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Though diesel hybrid buses reduce output of carbon emissions by transit fleets, O’Brien and Dembowski agreed more needed to be done.

“All of the science — all of the credible science — shows we really don’t have a lot of time,” Dembowski said. “I feel it’s incumbent on me as an elected official and a dad to [act against it]. We have some ability here to lead the nation — to show that acting locally to address these climate policies can work.”

Despite their short range, Proterra’s buses can cover 70 percent of Metro’s existing routes, Dembowski said.

Metro will also purchase nine long-range buses from various companies to test their capabilities, while county officials lobby the electric vehicle industry to create a nonproprietary standard for charging stations.
“It’s one of the exciting pieces of this [legislation],” Dembowski said. “We have made a commitment as of today to be the biggest public transit operator battery bus fleet in the country.”

That commitment, combined with the conversion of other transit operators across the country to electric fleets, could put market pressure on the electric vehicle industry to collaborate on a charging standard, he said.

The county also hopes to see the development of longer, articulated buses to serve high-capacity routes.