WHEN I ARRIVED in this town, I marveled at many things, including one that locals seemed to take as their birthright: the electric trolleybuses that swooshed through its central neighborhoods. Unlike the diesels everywhere else (including Seattle’s outlying routes), the trolleys ran smoothly, quietly, and smoke-free. They did not rattle windows or consume fossil fuel. With their extra torque and pavement-gripping tires, they handled hills that chewed up diesels and defied steel-wheeled streetcars. They were good neighbors to the shopping districts and sidewalk cafes then emerging along their routes.

But they didn’t get here by chance. Seattleites fought twice for their trolleys. Now they may have to fight again.

The first showdown came in the ’30s. Bled by the Depression and prodded by Big Auto, cities across the country began replacing their aging streetcars with diesel buses. Seattle’s citizens refused to go along; in 1937 they voted not to tear up the tracks and buy buses. The city government borrowed federal funds and went ahead anyway. But, in a nod to its streetcar neighborhoods, it kept some of the overhead electric lines that powered the streetcars and hooked trolleybuses to them. Only four other U.S. cities—Boston, San Francisco, Dayton, and Philadelphia—did the same.

Seattle rallied around its trolleys again in the early 1970s, when its bus system merged into Metro, the new regional (now King County) transit agency. Metro’s managers, seeking to streamline and save money, wanted to replace the trolleys with diesels, which cost less up front. “It was bureaucracy as usual,” says city council member Nick Licata, then a shaggy-haired young activist. “They were looking at short-term gains rather than long-term costs.” Licata and his allies met at the Comet Tavern and concocted a campaign to persuade the authorities to save the trolleys. It worked.

Now, as the world flocks to electric vehicles, Metro can boast of being prescient. Many of its 159 trolleys have plied the city’s most grueling routes for more than 20 years—almost twice the standard service life of diesel buses. But even Energizers go to bunny heaven; the trolleys are slated for replacement in 2014. That deadline, and Metro’s dire finances, have reopened the old question: Should the agency buy new trolleys or switch to new, improved diesel hybrid buses?

Two years ago, as the financial crunch loomed, the King County Council had the county auditor conduct a performance audit of transit operations, with an eye to savings. The review concluded that Metro could save $5.6 million a year, a fifth the cost of replacing and operating the trolleys, if it switched to hybrids, plus $3.1 million in service delays that arise because trolleys can’t pass each other on the wires.

Sounds like a deal. But once again Seattleites who ride or live by the trolleys rallied to keep them. They filled public hearings last summer with passionate appeals: Trolleys work better and make neighborhoods more livable. And they may not cost more; the closer you look, the more doubtful the purported savings seem.

As Metro general manager Kevin Desmond notes, the audit explicitly did not consider “environmental and social impacts”—the trolleys’ special strengths. It also compared apples and oranges—the cost of operating Metro’s current ancient trolleys versus hybrids that are six or fewer years old. And it did not note that the trolleys serve the system’s busiest, steepest routes; they stop more, carry more passengers, and survive harsher conditions than most buses. Furthermore, the feds provide more aid to buy trolleys than buses, narrowing their price difference.

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The audit warns that trolleys may become obsolete because so few American cities use them and “only one manufacturer” (in Canada) builds them. But hundreds of transit systems on five other continents use trolleys, and several European companies (some with U.S.-based operations) make them. San Francisco recently bought slick trolleys that resemble Sound Transit’s light-rail cars—no surprise, since the same Czech company makes them. The latest European designs have the same attractions as light-rail and streetcars: wide doors, low entries, high ceilings, big windows, individual seats, ample standing room. They generate some of their power by braking, like Priuses. They have battery packs and can run “off-wire” long enough to pass each other.

All this suggests two things: Performance audits are useful discussion starters but not the reform panacea many voters expect. And given how Seattleites cherish their trolleys, city transit officials and council members (including Licata) will argue hard for them when the county council decides, probably in mid-2011, after receiving a more thorough report on trolley economics. The question is how the county’s suburban council members, whose districts have no trolleys and vie with Seattle for transit dollars, will vote.

And it raises another question: Sound Transit is preparing to spend $132 million to build a First Hill streetcar line between its International District and (planned) John Street Stations. Why not build an express trolley line that could do the job better and go all the way to Montlake or the University District for the same price? But that’s a subject for another column.

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