Metro bus switch prompts concerns

A bus is a bus, right?

Not necessarily. The kind of bus used on a particular route can be important. And an operational change Metro Transit will introduce at the end of the month has provoked a negative reaction among many on the Hill who feel the move will produce significant negative impacts.

What will take place is fairly straightforward. At the start of Metro's fall schedule on Sept. 27, the transit agency will swap the articulated trolley buses used on routes 7, 43 and 44, major bus routes on Capitol Hill, for newer diesel coaches. The switch will take place only on weekends and involve roughly 30 buses. Frequency varies during the day, but this means between four and six coaches per hour in each direction will no longer be the electric trolley buses the neighborhood has come to expect.

According to Jim Jacobson, Metro's deputy general manager, the move is temporary. By early 2005, the diesel coaches will be replaced when the buses used in the downtown bus tunnel are put into service on routes 7, 43 and 44.

"With the September service change we are going to operate our newest articulated, ultra-clean diesel buses," Jacobson said. "What people may not know is that the older electric trolleys break down seven times more often that diesels.

The move, he said, is intended to save Metro Transit approximately $450,000 a year in operating expenses. The savings come largely from decreasing the maintenance cost of keeping the trolleys in service. The electric buses in question were put into service in 1987 and are the oldest buses in Metro's fleet. Jacobson said they have a trouble call of some kind roughly every 1,000 miles of service. When this occurs while the bus is in service, the effects on passengers and the Metro system can be dramatic.

"We probably haven't gotten the word out about just how clean these buses are," said Jacobson. "We have a great story to tell about them. The buses, when new, are 99 percent cleaner than diesel buses bought 15 years ago. By adding filters and using low sulfur fuel, we've removed 90 percent of that last 1 percent."

While the environmental impacts of the swap may not be as great as intuition might suggest, extra noise generated by the diesels is another neighborhood concern. Jacobson acknowledged that the diesels make more noise than electric trolleys.

Metro Transit's operational change has not gone over terribly well. Charles Hamilton, president of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, thinks the switch to diesel will have tangible, negative repercussions for the neighborhood. In a letter he wrote on the chamber's behalf to Metro, he took exception to the notion that the impacts will be minimal.

"Diesels, even recent models, would represent a large noise and pollution to the community....the diesels' noise levels are much greater than those of the trolleys," he wrote.

He also thought that making the switch on weekends would be particularly detrimental, since there are typically more outdoor activities on weekends. The swap, he feels, also runs contrary to efforts underway to improve the business climate on the Hill.

"I think most people respect [Metro's] economic realities," he said. "But Capitol Hill is as dependent on public transit as any place in the city, and this is the sort of thing that could have a fairly noticeable impact. Switching the buses to diesel every weekend is not something people are going to be happy about."

Ann Donovan, president of the Capitol Hill Community Council, sent a letter to Rick Walsh, Metro Transit's general manager, in which she made similar points. Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin, who chairs the council's transportation committee, held a hearing on the matter in the middle of August.

And State Rep. Ed Murray sent a letter to King County Executive Ron Sims in which he wrote that the switch "adds another negative aspect to the quality of life of this region's most densely populated residential neighborhoods, neighborhoods that already face significant challenges to their quality of life. Any saving realized will be lost in the cost of adding to the deteriorating quality of life of these urban neighborhoods."

That the swap is an operational move, and a temporary though somewhat lengthy one, meant that Metro was not inclined to send out specific notice about the decision. Were there to be changes in service, Jacobson said, Metro would have sent out notices, put notices on buses and invited public comment.

Beyond letters from community activists, Jacobson said more than 20 calls and e-mails have come in from citizens opposed to the change. Most have come from Capitol Hill.

""We were a little surprised by the strong reaction," he said. "But we appreciate the feedback. Frankly, it's good to hear that so many people are concerned about these issues."

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at 461-1308 or at

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