Metro To Convert To Natural-Gas Buses -- Switch Would Cost Agency $456 Million

Get ready for an expensive goodbye to diesel-powered transit buses in King County.

But don't expect the air you breathe to get noticeably better any time soon because of it.

The Metro Council Transit Committee yesterday unanimously recommended the expensive step of buying only natural gas-fueled buses in the future and approved a call for bids on 360 natural-gas buses that will cost about $110 million. These would replace older diesel buses.

Final approval of the switch will be up to the Metro Council on Feb. 4. Approval is expected because the Transit Committee membership includes more than a majority of the full council.

The most conservative estimate is that buying the buses, building fueling stations and converting Metro bus garages for the safe use of natural gas will cost about $456 million through 2000, compared to $380 million for the purchase of a new generation of clean-diesel buses.

Buying natural-gas buses means Metro will have to cut spending on other transit-improvement projects.

"The Clean Air Act makes it abundantly clear this is the direction we are going," said Mercer Island City Councilman Fred Jarrett.

Proponents argue that federal law is pushing all transit agencies to make the change in fuels. Others have bought natural-gas buses, but Metro's would be the largest order in the U.S.

However, experts have told the committee that converting the fleet to natural gas will make no measurable improvement in air quality. Buses produce less air pollution than do the motorcycles in King County, Metro consultants have reported.

Councilwoman Margaret Fimia, the only member of the committee to voice opposition, contends the Clean Air Act is aimed more at cars and trucks and its applicability to buses is in question.

But there were more abstract notions behind the committee's action. There was the idea of leadership.

Proponents believe Metro should show as much initiative in moving toward cleaner air as it did in cleaning up Lake Washington and Elliott Bay in the 1960s and 1970s, when investments in water-pollution control systems showed a huge and immediate improvement in water quality.

"Today we have an opportunity to make history in choosing natural gas for our next fleet of transit coaches," said King County Councilman Greg Nickels, chairman of the Transit Committee and a longtime proponent of the new fuel.

Nickels said the Metro Council agreed last summer it would buy natural-gas buses when they were shown to be available, capable of meeting Metro operating requirements and certified to meet federal air-quality standards.

"We have established without a doubt that natural-gas buses meet those standards," Nickels said. He said natural gas "is safe, better for the environment and affordable."

Added Seattle City Councilwoman Martha Choe: "I read our mission as being broader than just providing transportation."

County Councilman Larry Phillips, also a supporter of the conversion to natural gas, said the committee's action was more than an expensive gesture.

"We continuously ask the private sector to sacrifice for clean water and air, and we do not always step up to it," he said.

Voters may be asked in the fall to approve financing for a regional rail-and-bus system costing as much as $11 billion.

"We want to say we will provide better service and a better bus," Phillips said.

Phillips predicted the public would be allowed to fuel natural-gas cars and trucks at the stations Metro will build for its buses, thus encouraging motorists to switch fuels and allow Metro to recover some of the extra costs.

Along with the initial order of 360 natural-gas buses, the committee approved asking for options for 180 additional replacement vehicles.

Although some of the buses could be delivered this year, Metro will not schedule their delivery and use until at least mid-1995 to allow time to build fueling stations and to convert bus garages. It will continue to use older diesel buses in the meantime.

Metro operates 1,234 buses, including more than 100 electric trolleys and more than 200 duel-powered buses that operate on electricity in the downtown Seattle bus tunnel and under diesel power on highways.

The agency will continue to operate the trolleybuses and is planning to expand electric service.