Mike Lindblom, in The Seattle Times:
Federal money for Madison Street bus-rapid transit is on hold because Seattle and King County Metro can’t get the trailblazing electric vehicles that officials promised.
The agencies sought clean, wire-powered trolleybuses since voters approved the Move Seattle property-tax levy in 2015 and the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016, which each provide partial funding.
But the sole qualified manufacturer, New Flyer Industries, says it doesn’t have the proper kind of bus available.
As we wrote last week, the procurement issues dogging the Madison BRT project have been confusing to say the least. Lindblom’s Times piece yesterday does an excellent job laying it all out.
SDOT, who is spearheading the project and corralling the lion’s share of the funding, has set the bar high: they want an electric vehicle capable of serving up to 18,000 daily riders on a street that features a steep grade (so steep that a streetcar is out of the question). They also want doors on both sides to accommodate center-running lanes through First Hill. That’s a tall order. Metro, who will operate the line, wants to find a vehicle that meets that bar, but they’re running into a roadblock in New Flyer which, thanks to Buy American provisions, is the only possible supplier.
New Flyer isn’t saying they can’t make the buses, but they would be a custom job. The First Hill Streetcar project taught us that custom jobs can be difficult to deliver and maintain. The project already looks like’s slipping to 2022, ten years from when it was initially proposed in the Transit Master Plan.
Changing the gearing and adding more doors on New Flyer’s standard electric 60′ coaches to accommodate the hills isn’t nearly as difficult as adding a hybrid drivetrain to a streetcar, of course, but further complicating matters is a recalcitrant Federal Transit Administration that appears to be slow walking urban transit projects.
None of these are insurmountable obstacles. And switching from overhead wires to diesel-electric hybrids or battery buses, while not ideal, means less wire needs to be hung. That could save money and reduce operational complexity.
With all this uncertainty, and more tradeoff discussions sure to come, it’s worth keeping our eyes on the prize. The real win here is high-capacity transit, running in dedicated right-of-way, from downtown to Madison Valley. That goal can be more-or-less achieved tomorrow using Metro’s existing fleet and a bucket of red paint. Everything else is gravy.