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C200: A High-Performing Trolley Network for Seattle

2011 March 24
by Tom Rasmussen

< Eletric trolley bus in Lyon, France >

Spokane is planning a “high performance transit service” that will connect major activity centers within the central city.  On Friday March 18, I met a delegation of Spokane government and business leaders who have narrowed the choice of vehicles to electric trolley busses (ETB), street cars or a rapid ride bus service. They were in Seattle to learn more about our version of the alternatives and to experience a ride on each.

Metro is assessing whether to order more ETB’s or to scrap the system. I am working to keep and expand our electric trolley bus system, eventually into the kind of in-city high performance network Spokane is looking at, with many of the ease of use, speed and reliability benefits of Sound Transit’s Link or Metro’s RapidRide.

One of the disadvantages of ETB’s is that the purchase price is more than diesel or diesel-hybrid buses. However, I believe that their power on hills and the environmental benefits outweigh the higher up-front cost. With the price of fossil fuels continuing to increase, electric vehicles fueled with carbon-free City Light electricity will be cheaper to operate over the long run.

By working with cities like Spokane who are also considering ETB purchases, we can get the price down and pursue more modern European style designs, as seen in the photo above, taken in Lyon, France. Just as Portland has done with streetcars, we may even be able to lure a manufacturer to build assemble new ETB’s right here in Seattle.


Tom Rasmussen is a Seattle City Councilmember.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Sophia Katt permalink
    March 24, 2011

    What manufacturer would you prefer to see here?

  2. Austin permalink
    March 24, 2011

    I’d love to see our electric bus system expand throughout our neighborhoods. They’re quieter, cleaner, and more of a joy to ride.

  3. Joshua Daniel Franklin permalink
    March 24, 2011

    Make it happen!

  4. Dave permalink
    March 24, 2011

    I agree completely with all of your points. Trolley buses have much better performance on our steep hills, are super quiet, and produce zero emissions. And, while hydro power will probably become less reliable in the future with climate change affecting the predictability of snowpack levels, I think it’s still going to be less volatile than diesel as peak oil continues to worsen (if one sees that as a negative).

    Thank you for working to save (and hopefully expand) our trolley bus system!

  5. Wells permalink
    March 24, 2011

    It is more important that in-city trolleybuses run frequently. An articulated model is not the right choice for that reason nor are they best for steep hillclimbs and tricky intersections. The flaw in the trolleybus route reconfiguration proposal is how the hilly and high-demand downtown segments are treated the same as the level and low-demand neighborhood segments. The fix is in. The decision to dismantle the trolleybus network is already made. The stated reason will be trolleybus cost, but the actual reason is because successful transit is competition to automobile sales and associated profiteering. And don’t count on Metro installing a streetcar line on 1st Ave. They know it’s NOT feasible, just as they knew the streetcar route on the Waterfront Plaza was not feasible though wrongly presented as such for many years. A Waterfront Street Line is possible (and Metro knows it) but Seattle’s politics dictate that transit perform below expectations and desperate need. Their game is bait and switch. Throw the bums out!

  6. Japhet Koteen permalink
    March 24, 2011

    As a bicyclist, I much prefer to be sucking wind behind an electric trolley bus on a steep hill than choking my lungs with diesel fuel. In addition, the fixed guide wires provide a certainty of the location of future routes that encourages private investment along transit routes. If the City would only choose to respect people by providing adequate facilities at transit stops (if you ever want to feel like a second class citizen, just wait by one of those bus stops with no shelter on a rainy day on a busy street).

    I know, King County Metro runs the bus system, but that’s hardly an excuse for our leaders abdicating their role in coordinating land use and mobility investments. You can pick up the phone and call Metro at any time.

    • eldan permalink
      March 25, 2011

      Yes to this! Biking on 3rd Ave I deliberately avoid passing trolleybusses, so I can stay behind one of those instead of a diesel.

  7. John permalink
    March 25, 2011

    Thanks for working on saving our ETBs, Tom – I’m less concerned about Euro-styling at this point than I am about low floors and seating arrangements. I’m an almost-daily ETB rider, and the things that kill on-time performance are the lifts and not enough standing room. Go to a 2 + 1 seating arrangement on the front half of the bus, with a wider aisle and more standing room. Folks will be able to get in and out faster and we’ll all win.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      April 1, 2011

      Exactly right. If we can get people on and off quickly, new ETBs will pay for themselves even faster (remember, cutting a route’s time in half both doubles it’s capacity and cuts it’s per-rider cost in half, since you can run the route twice with the same driver’s time).

      I’m still very curious how these can cost more than diesel or hybrid buses. You don’t have engines, fuel systems, exhaust systems, emissions systems, transmisson systems, etc. Most of the cost of electric cars is in their batteries, and ETB’s don’t need batteries (though I’d like some anyway, to speed past line problems for a few blocks). We’re talking about a few electric motors (cheap), and a system to connect to wires – that’s it!

  8. Bruce permalink
    March 25, 2011

    Another huge fan of trolleybuses here. We need to capitalize on this great asset, not throw it away.

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