We asked someone to make the case for trolleys, and Orphan Road delivered.
My thinking on this subject is still evolving, but some bullet points on my current position are below the jump.
- I don’t see any evidence that there are ridership, speed, or TOD advantages to a trolley bus vs. a diesel bus.
- There is a general preference in the affected communities for a trolley bus, although some people really hate the wires.
- As bus type is a public policy decision, I think it’s fair to consider the externalities of the fuel that diesels burn, which probably neutralizes whatever cost advantages diesels or hybrids might have.
- Although I don’t think there’s any sort of conspiracy, I’m not really convinced by the audit result that the lifecycle cost of a hybrid is lower, for the reasons Matt enumerates.
- I’m out of the fuel price prediction game, and no one knows what gas will cost in 2014. However, the relative stability of electricity costs is in itself an important argument for trolleys, and a useful hedge against oil price volatility.
- Canceling trolley service often leads to a neighborhood demanding that the wires come down, so there’s a capital cost in taking trolley service away. That seems like a really poor use of resources.
- Trolley expansion is relatively inexpensive (I believe it’s about $1m/mile), but I probably would put that pretty far down the prioirity list for capital expenses. Things like Business Access and Transit (BAT) lanes, more TVMs for Rapid Ride, and so on would provide a bigger payoff for riders and also save on operating costs by making the buses run faster. Of course, you also have Streetcars an order of magnitude in cost higher, with ridership and TOD advantages.
The upshot is that I think it would be poor public policy to get rid of the diesels trolleys, even if it means cutting a small number of trips elsewhere in the system. Can anyone convince me otherwise?
On a somewhat related note, the purported advantages of trolleys are yet another example where cost effectiveness and productivity are not the only value in the equation. Trolleys are a case where the Seattle interests apparently cut against strict cost metrics, and when arguing about service cuts Seattle residents would do well to remember that.