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King County Metro Transit says it recovered $4.7 million of the $6.1 million it spent on 35 short buses that the agency pulled off the streets, after drivers complained of poor sightlines and fumes.

The transit agency returned the entire batch to the manufacturer this summer, as part of an out-of-court-settlement, said General Manager Kevin Desmond. He said it’s the first time Metro has spurned a group of vehicles.

Metro received the 35 diesel buses in 2009, seeking an alternative to full-size buses for outlying routes in East and South King County. They seat about 20 people and have low floors for easy boarding.

The StarTrans 1900 Series vehicles also had a “poorly designed and engineered driver station that limited shorter drivers’ visibility,” Metro complained in a lawsuit against Supreme Corporation, the Goshen, Ind.-based manufacturer, whose large vans and small buses travel millions of miles a year in the country.

In fact, King County has what Desmond called “a long, successful history” with a smaller StarTrans model for its Access fleet that shuttles disabled riders.

Driver complaints began shortly after the new 1900 Series buses arrived, so Metro parked them at a Bellevue base for months, then reworked the mirrors.

But when the buses went back to the streets, the circulation system on some vehicles “funneled noxious fumes from the diesel-engine compartment into the bus interior,” according to the lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court in February 2012.

The document listed 30 alleged flaws, from plugged fuel filters to pulsating brakes.

Metro said it “revoked acceptance” of the buses in late 2011. This summer, the two sides reached a $4.7 million out-of-court settlement, said Desmond. Doing so cost the county $600,000 in legal fees, which was less than the $1.2 million the county budgeted to pursue the case.

Calls to StarTrans were referred to a company attorney, who could not be reached for comment late last week.

In 2010, the company’s vice president for bus sales told The Seattle Times there were no complaints in other cities. He pointed out that Metro’s inspectors saw and evaluated the buses throughout the procurement.

StarTrans
was founded in 1983,
and is now a division of Supreme Corp. The company profile on its website says it is “strongly committed to building the best quality products delivered on time.”

The money loss associated with the buses’ return comes as Metro is operating many packed buses and shortening driver breaks to squeeze every trip out of a tight budget. Metro has suggested a car-tab tax increase to avoid service cuts when other revenue sources expire, next year.

Desmond said that if Metro had been more rigorous when reviewing a prototype, managers could have dealt with the visibility problems beforehand. He said other flaws were unforeseeable until buses logged many miles.

“That’s utterly unique. I would never want to do this again,” Desmond said of the rejection.

Brian Sherlock, a Metro driver and safety-committee member for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, said rejecting the 35 vehicles is an instance of Metro doing the right thing.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom