King Country Metro has a message to the residents and politicians of Seattle: the bus agency has barely begun to study electric trolley buses, so please… Well, please calm down. “We’re just at the beginning of this process,” said Linda Thielke, a Metro spokesperson. “No decision has been made. All the options are still on the table.”
At a presentation before the Seattle City Council yesterday, Metro staff outlined some of the parameters of study that will be conducted over the next year and then presented to the King County Council around March, 2011. The County Council will decide by November, 2011 whether to purchase new electric trolley buses or move toward hybrid buses as part of the Metro biennial budget process.
Some blogs have accused Metro of trying to kill of the trolley buses with this study, but Thielke says it is being done “with a blank slate and open mind.” She said that recognizes that some benefits of trolleys — like quiet operation — aren’t strictly monetary savings. The study — called the “Trolley Bus System Evaluation” — is budgeted to cost $850,000.
An earlier audit of Metro estimated the county could save $8.7 million a year by buying hybrid buses instead of new trolleys when the current trolley fleet is retired in 2014. Some — including Metro staff — have accused the auditor of using optimistic numbers for hybrid costs, noting that trolleys were cheaper to operate than hybrids when deisel was expensive in the summer of 2008, according a report in the PI. Theilke says that Metro understands it can’t “go just by the price off the shelf” and must also study “oil prices over time.”
More after the jump…
But much of the savings identified by the auditor would come from scheduling and efficiency improvements that may not be able to be accomplished as long as trolley buses are confined to their overhead wires. Notably, Metro is the only trolley bus operator in North America whose buses can’t operate when disconnected from the wire. Newer technology might address that issue, but new trolleys are costlier than hybrid buses because few transit systems in America use electric trolley buses (just five, according to Thielke).
Thielke said the study would be happening no matter what the auditor had found, because of the tremendous costs involved in replacing the 159 trolley bus fleet. The 2014 retirement date is a hard deadline, Thielke told us, because some of the buses are falling apart and some of the replacement parts “are no longer being made.”
The trolley infrastructure has been around in Seattle since 1940 when “Seattle’s sytem of streetcars were replaced by a network of electric trolley buses,” said Jonathan Dung, a transportation planner for Seattle’s Depoartment of Transportation.
The next step will be a trolley open house that we reported on earlier today. In September, the commission handling the study will outline their methodology to the King County Council.