The final decision on whether or not to keep the trolley buses will be made by the King County Council. And whether or not electric buses will save the county money over the long term, there’s a cold political reality to the county council’s decision: Out of nine county council members, only two have any trolley buses in their districts.
That fact could easily open up the trolley decision to the long-standing divide between Seattle and the surrounding regional government. Perceived equities in Metro funding has always been a key part of that, which resulted in the infamous 80/20 rule that devotes 80% of new transit hours to the suburbs, even when multiple Seattle bus routes run at standing-room-only conditions.
On the other side, everyone in Seattle city government who has spoken out on the trolley bus issue has been in support of keeping them. So with a potential city/county divide on the issue, the question becomes: what could the city offer to keep the trolley buses around.
As we discussed last month, the trolley bus network runs on cheap hydropower from Seattle City Light. Metro is a big customer for city power. Each day the electric buses use the equivalent of hundres of houses worth of electricity.
The county currently doesn’t get a break on those power costs, paying the standard commercial rate of about six cents per kilowatt hour. Other large commercial users, such as the Nucor steel mill, do pay lower rates. However, in those cases the rate is usually for off-peak hours when the utility has energy to spare, an option that’s not feasible for a transit system that runs 20 hours a day.
But it’s conceivable that the city could decide that the environmental benefits of electric buses are worth a subsidy on that power cost. A 30% cut in electric rates would save the county about $5 million dollars over the next 20 years. However, that’s just 11% of the $44 million cost of new trolley buses when the existing fleet wears out.
The bigger cost driver of trolley buses is the maintenance of the network of overhead wires. The county maintains a crew of linesmen that are always on hand to fix breaks, do routine maintenance, and to relocate wire when needed due to construction projects or other factors.
However, that’s an area that the city could conceivably help out with too. Seattle City Light already has a big crew of linemen that build and maintain the network of wires that deliver power to customers all over the region. That could allow the city to take over trolley bus line maintenance and save the county a hundred million dollars over the next 20 years – more than enough to make up any gap between the county budget and the cost of new trolleys.
The question would be how much it would cost the city to take that over. It’s reasonable to think that the city could do it for much less than the county, given the city’s existing efficiency of scale and expertise in electrical distribution. And it may be possible to fashion a compromise where the county pays the city some additional rate to cover the cost of the infrastructure work, while still saving enough to make the trolley buses a smart financial move.
Given the realities of the county’s budget problems and politics, a win/win compromise may be the best way to keep quiet, non-polluting electric buses running in the city.