Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Newer and Better Than Light Rail --
Bus Rapid Transit, Like a Train with Rubber Tires

by John Niles for Public Interest Transportation Forum

First, read what U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said on July 8, 2004 about a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project in Eugene, Oregon: “Bus Rapid Transit gives communities the best bang for their buck when it comes to investing in transit. This new system will better connect workers to jobs, shoppers to stores and Oregon to the rapidly growing economy.”

A few hundred miles north in Seattle, King County Metro Transit unveiled new state-of-the-art hybrid buses on May 27, 2004, built to run without dangerous emissions in the leading BRT right of way in America, the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel.

"This hybrid bus is a first of its kind - and it's not surprising that it is showing up here first," said King County Executive Ron Sims. "We led the region on converting to ultra low-sulfur fuel, and now we are on the cutting edge for hybrid technology. Metro is known as one of the most innovative transit agencies in the nation. For the past 30 years, transit ideas that have been pioneered here in King County have become the industry standard in the rest of the world."

The 235 hybrids have been purchased to replace aging buses now operating on routes using the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel – 213 will be deployed by Metro and 22 by Sound Transit. The first two dozen hybrids will go in service in South King County on June 5. All 235 will be on the road by the end of the year.

The hybrid bus operates on both Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) and electricity that is generated within the vehicle and stored in batteries on the roof. It will eliminate the need for overhead wires inside the tunnel, which is important since work begins next year to retrofit the tunnel to carry both buses and light rail. (Photo from King County Metro web)

"We needed a large bus that was clean, efficient, and met some unique operating needs," said Sims. "As we explored options, we decided that hybrid technology had the best potential to meet our clean-air and operating requirements."

Plans for replacing the tunnel buses began several years ago with Metro’s Bus Procurement Committee – a group of bus drivers, maintenance workers and managers who collaborated on what they thought would work best in King County. Their ideas were turned over to a group of national manufacturers who worked together to create the new hybrid bus. That team included: New Flyer of America; Allison Transmission, a division of General Motors; and Caterpillar.

Sims said the hybrid purchase demonstrates Metro's and Sound Transit's willingness to explore every possible alternative for cost-effective, clean-air transportation. Replacement of the current fleet of tunnel buses will save approximately $3.5 million annually in fuel and maintenance costs. Those savings will be reinvested in expanded service as outlined in Metro’s six-year transit plan.

Comment on this News Release from John Niles:

Congratulations to King County Metro Transit and Sound Transit on their 235 new high-tech hybrid buses to be operating by the end of 2004.

Doubling the order of buses to 450 or so and deploying them efficiently on regional express routes through the Bus Tunnel would be billions fewer tax dollars and more effective than keeping on with the construction of Central Link light rail.  This contention is documented in the CETA Report to Congress published by the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives in May 2003.

Official ignorance of this option is the reason why the "highly recommended" rating of Central Link is erroneous, and why Central Link should have received a "not recommended" rating, as documented by the Washington Policy Center in September 2003.

Rich Harkness and I wrote a last ditch Seattle Times Op-Ed, "New breed of buses better than light rail," published September 23, 2003, just before Sound Transit and U.S. Senator Patty Murray squeezed out Federal approval to begin construction of light rail.  Billions are now beginning to be spent on the Train to Nowhere (with apologies to City of Tukwila, which is "somewhere," even though the Ajax Parking Lot where the Tukwila light rail station will be built -- a two mile shuttle bus ride to SeaTac Airport -- is "nowhere" compared to the Southcenter designated urban center where the City wanted light rail to go).

New hybrid Metro buses went into service on June 5, 2004 on Metro Routes 101 (Renton-Seattle), 150 (Kent-Auburn-Seattle) and 194 (Federal Way-Sea-Tac-Seattle). Others are to be added to routes on the Eastside in late summer, and Seattle and North Seattle in the fall. All 235 buses should be in service by the end of 2004.

A September 2001 report from U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) examines Bus Rapid Transit and finds it a promising alternative to light rail.  Report is available to download at .

The best place for keeping up to date with the latest information on BRT is the website of the Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center in Washington, DC:


Another good source of information, especially on vehicles, is the FTA executive secretariat for the BRT Action Plan of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), a California research organization, WestStart-CALSTART.


Still a third source of BRT information is the FTA-funded National Bus Rapid Transit Institute in Florida.


And fourth, more skeptical, pro-rail source of information is the Center for Transportation Excellence in Washington, DC, which has a BRT 101 page.

King County Council Transportation Committee commissioned a consultant report listing unfunded right-of-way improvements that would improve bus performance in the I-5 corridor north of Seattle.   Report summary and complete text for download in PDF is at  This report also includes the analysis of Bus Tunnel capacity from DMJM+Harris.

Sound Transit's Link Light Rail plan is still failing:
Five billion dollars over the voter-approved 1996 budget for the first 21 miles.
Local funding share from Motor Vehicle Excise Tax is at risk because of voter approval and Supreme Court clearance of I-776 tax cut.
First 14 miles is years behind schedule; construction started November, 2003.
Extension beyond first 14 miles now requires a vote to double Sound Transit taxes; not scheduled.
No budget, no funding, and no hope of building out to the preferred northern terminus at Northgate.
Next hurdle -- closing the downtown Bus Tunnel at start of 2005 Christmas shopping season to lay train tracks.
Editorial support for light rail changed to opposition at Seattle Times.
Public support for light rail is below 50% in the region overall; one poll showed below 50 percent even in City of Seattle.
Light rail was never objectively analyzed against express bus alternatives; building light rail was pre-determined.
The Initial Segment Plan proposing 31 rail cars operating on a 14 mile long route does not have the capacity and geographic reach of the official "no build" alternative comprised of 232 additional tunnel buses.
Still, many political and business leaders, and concerned citizens generally, continue to believe that light rail is an important transportation system to build in Seattle and the central Puget Sound region. The reasons for this belief include the following:
Light rail increases passenger-carrying capacity of the overall transportation system (not true).
Light rail is a replacement for bus service in the densest part of Seattle (only if you want to go where light rail goes).
Light rail provides travelers with an alternative to driving in congestion (only if you want to go where light rail goes).
Light rail operates successfully in many other cities (but it bleeds transit finances in some cities).
Light rail is cheaper and faster to build, and more environmentally friendly, than adding more freeway lanes (straw man).
Light rail in Seattle is projected to carry thousands of riders every day, more than any other light rail line in America (so they say).
Light rail is a next step in creating an efficient multi-modal transportation system in a modern, world-class city like Seattle (so they say).
All of these points about light rail might be true in some cities, but they do not portray what is best for Seattle. Why?   Because there is now a better transit alternative available than light rail. Because of new technological developments and service concepts in the professional field of public transportation, a major expansion and modernization of bus service would provide the region with more passenger capacity, more geographic coverage, and more new transit riders than light rail would, sooner and at lower cost.
The new professional emphasis on bus service is called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). BRT is a recent initiative of the Federal Transit Administration. It is the subject of demonstration projects in cities nationwide. The general aim is to make bus service work better than train service at a lower cost. Sound Transit has been investigating BRT for some time, and held a workshop on BRT March 12, 2001.  The Federal money committed to Seattle in the Full Funding Grant Agreement of January 2001 could likely be reprogrammed to BRT.
Sound Transit already has a mass transit bus component called ST Express and a funded construction program of making HOV ramp improvements on the freeways that lets buses move faster through traffic. The Sound Transit bus program and the HOV improvements could be substantially expanded and upgraded if the Link Light Rail program were stopped and the available funds reprogrammed.
On the 1996 ballot for Sound Transit (known then as RTA), this was written about the ST Express bus program that voters approved along with light rail: "Regional express bus lines would provide all-day, frequent, two-way service to centers including Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Issaquah, Mercer Island, Woodinville, Bothell, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, Everett, Shoreline, West Seattle, Renton, Burien, Tukwila, Sea-Tac, Federal Way, Kent, Auburn, and Tacoma.  Many routes would use a new HOV Expressway, combining over 100 miles of continuous, state-funded HOV lanes and RTA-funded HOV ramps, so transit may travel in separated rights-of-way on congested freeways."
Funds recovered from Sound Transit's failed light rail program would let this voter-approved vision for bus service be substantially upgraded. Enhancements would include more frequent service, service to more places, construction of some additional dedicated right-of-way, more clean-fuel and quieter buses, and the use of information technology (including the Internet, cell phones, and free pagers) to provide high levels of real-time information to customers about bus schedules and the actual arrival time of buses.
While certain parts of this recommended direction with modernized bus service can be implemented within Sound Transit's legal authority, any new capital construction of new dedicated transitways would be subject to legal requirements for a least-cost alternatives analysis and environmental impact review.
Sound Transit tried for many years to implement light rail, and couldn't get permission to start building until 2003. Light rail in this region may yet prove out as too hard to do -- too many tunnels, too many neighborhoods that don't want it, too much interference with the downtown bus tunnel.   Bus Rapid Transit is a less risky and more cost-effective way to move forward now. The result would be region-wide rapid transit service that goes more places than light rail, moves just as fast, and costs a whole lot less.
Recommendation:  Start learning about Bus Rapid Transit.  Start asking about Bus Rapid Transit.  We've already started to implement Bus Rapid Transit with ST Express.  Let's do it faster. Let's stop trying to make a light rail "spine" in Seattle and instead build a region-wide network of high tech BRT.

Click here to learn more about BRT.

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Last modified: February 07, 2011