Community Post

City council expresses strong support for trolley buses

Today the city council transportation committee hosted a lunchtime presentation on trolley buses and their potential replacement by Metro. The transit agency is currently scoping a year-long study that will guide the county’s decision on whether to scrap the current trolley bus network and replace them with hybrid diesel buses.

As we’ve reported before, the potential change is driven by the upcoming need to replace the current fleet of trolley buses in 2015 due to the upcoming end of “useful life” for the current buses. The main issues are cracking bodies in the 24-year-old articulated buses (which were previously repurposed from service in the bus tunnel), and outdated electrical systems in the more recent Gillig trolley buses, whose motors actually came out of trolley buses purchased in 1979.

A Metro project manager said that the study will compare a range of different bus technologies and look at the lifecycle costs and environmental impact between each, including:

  • Purchase price
  • Energy costs
  • Scheduling efficiency
  • Vehicle maintenance costs
  • Maintenance of overhead electrical network
  • Noise
  • Air quality
  • Climate change
  • Environmental justice
  • Pavement wear due to vehicle weight
  • Funding & federal grant implications

There was a full contingent of city council members present for the meeting, indicating the high degree of attention the trolley bus issue gets among the city leaders.

The issue of environmental impacts and risks for the cost of oil was a consistent issue brought up by members of the city council. Councilmember Richard Conlin strongly encouraged Metro to include a range of possible fuel costs in their analysis, which is one of the factors we highlighted in a story last month.

The council also expressed a strong desire to work with Metro to keep the trolley network in place, specifically mentioning the possibility of offering lower electricity costs to the county. However, according to our analysis, electric costs are unlikely to have a large impact, and the idea of reworking the responsibility for trolley wire maintenance was not brought up.

Your chance to weigh in is next week when Metro will be holding a public meeting to discuss the trolley bus replacement study.

SDOT also provided some interesting historical information on the trolley network:

  • The peak of the streetcar system was in 1936 when there was 410 streetcars running on 230 miles of track
  • Most streetcars in the city were turned into “trackless trolleys” when the street car tracks were torn up in 1941, with trolley buses reaching all corners of the city, including Green Lake, Maple Leaf, Ballard, and West Seattle
  • In 1963 the city limits were expanded to the north and south and the city decided it couldn’t afford to extend trolley bus wires into the new areas. They converted most lines to diesel buses, leaving only a 35 mile network on Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and the Central District
  • In 1979 Metro had fully taken over the old Seattle bus system, and they bought a new bus fleet and expanded the trolley network to include Eastlake, the University District, Ballard, Rainier Avenue, and Beacon Hill.
  • The current trolley system covers a network of 70 miles, and was expanded as recently as last year

0 thoughts on “City council expresses strong support for trolley buses

  1. The metro website is vague. Who is doing the study? What criteria is to be used? What questions will be asked? Who makes the final decisions on electric versus diesel matter into my neighborhood?

  2. Yep – They’re just getting started and won’t have much more to say until they release their “scope” for the study later this summer, which will determine the criteria they’ll be using.

    Final decision will be made by the county council. And while they’ll use the results of Metro’s study to inform their decision, politics isn’t always based on a rational analysis of the available data.

  3. King County Metro has loaded the dice against continued use of trolley buses in Seattle by limiting their operation to weekdays (Mondays through Fridays) and operating only diesel and hybrid buses on weekends and holidays. This allows it to distribute the infrastructure maintenance and operating costs (mainly taking care of the trolley wires and keeping them “hot” at all times to avoid copper thefts) to fewer total vehicles miles. Then KCM comes along and tells the citizens of Seattle that “trolley buses cost more per vehicle mile to operate than diesel-electric hybrids.” Of course, you can produce those statistics when your institutional bias is to get rid of all trolley buses. KCM knows how to play the game; to be determined is whether or not the City Council will call them into account over it. A legitimate question, one that KCM does not want to answer, is “How much lower per vehicle mile would the cost of running trolley buses be if their use was maximized?”

  4. The mere fact that this discussion and debate is even taking place is total insanity. Did anyone in Seattle ever hear of the Gulf of Mexico and the ongoing oil spill disaster? Does Seattle have network TV news to allow its citizens and public officials to see what is going on in the world? I guess the King County officials all have their heads in the sand. It would seem that they’re in denial or reality hasn’t quite set in yet in the Pacific Northwest. The whole debate is a “no brainer” and is actually embarrassing to even be having.

    Hello King County !! Millions of gallons of oil continue to pour uncontrolled into the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama continues to push the country away from the use of oil and to explore other means of “clean” energy. You guys are fortunate to already have in place what the rest of North America needs and will spend billions to achieve. And here you are thinking of ways to scrap it and replace it with oil burning Diesel buses. There’s something wrong with this picture. Am I dreaming this? Will I suddenly wake up and find out that it was a horrible nightmare? We certainly don’t need to find more ways to consume and burn oil in this country.

    I’m beginning to wonder if the King County officials, who would even entertain the thought of scrapping an electric trolley coach network powered by a clean hydro-electric power source, ever went beyond the third grade. Wake up Seattle…’ve got a wonderful, valuable asset that you should be proud of and boast of to the world. I’m wondering if this debate is just a “make work” project for unemployed consultants? Or do the King County officials own lots of oil stock? What other reasonable explanation could there be?

  5. The earlier comment about “loading the dice” is right on target. Tactics to minimize the use of overhead wire during analysis is a familiar tactic to skew costs that has employed by other operators seeking to rid themselves of the inconvenience of infrastructure maintenance—e.g. Philadelphia, Dayton, Edmonton (only the latter was successful, by the way).

    The list of criteria KCM plans to use to evaluate cost ignores a critical one: customer convenience—or at least tries to mask it in the guise of “schedule efficiency.” Translated, that means “how much slower will your bus trip become, especially when climbing hills?” (KCM may have overlooked that Seattle has a few…).

    The superior acceleration characteristics of electric buses is THE primary reason that they have been retained so long here. A 1970s-era attempt to eliminate the routes on Queen Anne Hill was thwarted when fully loaded diesel buses stalled half-way up the grade!

    The other commentor hits another important consideration—the Pacific Northwest is blessed with “green”, relatively-cheap hydro-power and only trolley buses can use it. Hybrid buses may burn less diesel fuel than a non-hybrid bus, but it is still the fuel that has to be pumped out of the ground, refined, transported and stored. Every one of those steps uses even more fuel and generates greenhouse gases. KCM needs to calcuate the full carbon burden of the supposedly “cheaper” alternatives.

  6. I noticed last weekend that the amazingly peaceful weekends are now being shattered by the cursed diesel versions. Having read previous posts, I wondered if this was a ploy by the city to eventually say, “we’ve been running these on the weekends for some time and no one has complained” (pardon my synicism). My guess is that most people wouldn’t say anything regardless of how loud and stinky the buses are.

    It’s such a shame that we can’t have one of the benefits (the quiet) of the trolleys on the weekends when lots of us are actually home enjoying our nice pleasant neighborhood. I’ll keep watching for updates here to see what we can do to have our dissatisfaction with this to be heard…assuming that they will be considered at all. Thanks Shar for the metro post, I’ll try to make it to the meeting downtown on Tuesday.

    It’s great to hear comments of other folks in the area that have other concerns that I share. If we can just manage to channel this concern into something other than blog posts (I’m often guilty of this after being at a stressful job all day), we might manage to have some sort of effect. I wish us all lots of luck.

  7. I am not sure how they determine this. I wrote Metro and never received an answer. However, a bus driver told it is related only to construction. The trolley has returned to some routes where diesels were running on weekends.

  8. turns out for the meeting. I am not sure I will be able to make it. Were the direct impacts on heath also considered?

  9. they are unreliable, dangerous, and unpleasant to ride. someone mentioned edmonton. immediately the electric junk was finally scrapped, ridership on the routes newly converted to proper buses shot up, and has been going up since. crush the scrap already!