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Sunday, May 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Diesel buses using tunnel, but not for long

By Charles E. Brown
Seattle Times staff reporter

Metro takes delivery of hybrids buses Thursday to replace aging buses on the downtown tunnel routes; 213 will be deployed by Metro and 22 by Sound Transit. The first hybrids will go in service Saturday in South King County.
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James Crowley of Seattle says that in the five years he's been catching buses in Metro's downtown bus tunnel, he's noticed hybrid electric/diesel coaches occasionally drive through under diesel power.

"Although the thought of diesel fumes polluting the air in the tunnel stations has always made me uneasy, I've never been too bothered by the inevitability that mechanical problems will force a small handful of the hybrid buses to use diesel power while in the tunnel."

But lately, he said, regular diesel-only buses have been using the tunnel as well, especially in the evening. The number of diesel-only buses seems to be increasing, too. On a recent Friday evening, he claims, hybrid buses leaving the tunnel under electric power were outnumbered.

"I hope that Metro officials aren't getting overly used to letting diesel buses use the tunnel. This could end up fouling the air and perhaps even damaging the stations."

A: Jim Boon, Metro Transit's manager of vehicle maintenance, says there's a reason more diesel buses had been using the tunnel.

The diesel-electric buses currently in use through the tunnel were built in Italy more than a decade ago and, frankly, are at the end of their useful life as dual-mode buses. They are to be replaced soon by state-of-the-art hybrid articulated buses on Metro and Sound Transit routes.

Keeping the older buses in top operating shape has become more difficult, Boon said, and parts have become harder to locate. Some must be ordered from Europe, and that's more involved than receiving parts from U.S. factories.

Recently, Metro had to keep many of its older buses out of service while waiting for a special part from France for the front disc brakes. At the height of the problem, about two weeks ago, nearly four dozen buses were out of service and replaced by regular diesel buses, Boon said.

While not ideal, he said, Metro's diesel buses are cleaner than most transit agencies', since they run on ultra-low-sulfur fuel.

Boon said the special parts arrived, and Metro mechanics worked around the clock on repairs. All out-of-service buses awaiting that part are now back in service.

Metro recently took delivery of the first two dozen of its new hybrid tunnel-buses. The first ones will go into service Saturday on routes in South King County, and more than 200 others are expected to be on the road by the end of this year.
Q: Linda Mitchell of Seattle wants to know if the city plans to fix the car/pedestrian congestion at the intersection of Western Avenue and Virginia Street, at the north end of Pike Place Market. There's no traffic signal there — only stop signs — and Mitchell laments that pedestrians cross constantly in all directions.

A: Rob Spillar, the Seattle Transportation Department's director of traffic management, says that intersection was studied a couple of years ago to determine if a traffic signal was needed. While traffic engineers don't dispute the congestion, the department says the collision rate there has been very low in the past decade.

Spillar said engineers plugged data about current conditions into a computer model to compare operation with and without a signal.

"While the traffic volumes are high enough to meet the criteria for a new signal, our model showed almost no improvement to either safety or congestion" would be gained by adding lights, Spillar said.

The cost to install a traffic signal could outweigh its benefit, Spillar said. So, it's probably a safe guess that a signal will not be installed anytime soon.

Bumper feedback

Last week's "Bumper note" offered suggestions from the Port of Seattle for reducing congestion on Seattle-Tacoma International Airport's pickup drive. Airport officials attributed some of the congestion to drivers repeatedly circling the drive as they wait to pick up arriving passengers. Several readers offered suggestions of their own. Among them:

• Bothell-area resident John Isakson suggested the Port consider free parking in the airport's hourly parking garage, on the third floor, for a short time — say, 30 minutes to one hour.

"This would encourage people to use the hourly parking rather than circling the drive several times," he said. "My wife and I have just returned from Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airport. We noted that their free time is one hour in the hourly parking area. We have not experienced heavy congestion at BWI that is so common at Sea-Tac. We also have seen BWI at frequent intervals since we travel there often."

Mark Shaw of West Seattle explained his game plan for meeting arriving passengers: "Have the passenger call me on my cellphone once on the ground, either after picking up bags or if just with carry-on, within five minutes of reaching the pickup area. Meanwhile, I wait off-site along International Boulevard in a hotel parking lot, reading or listening to music peacefully, instead of circling and adding to the traffic mess."

Sea-Tac Airport spokesman Bob Parker says most people would probably prefer to pick up arriving passengers curbside rather than parking in the airport garage and walking over to the baggage-claim area.

"We are looking for a piece of nearby airport property that might serve as a waiting area for people in their cars," Parker said. "They could wait until they get the call on their cellphone, and then drive up to curbside."

Bumper welcomes feedback on topics appearing in this column. E-mail us at or call Charles Brown at 206-464-2206.

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Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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