Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen is raising flags about an effort to replace the fleet of electric trolley buses that run in the city with diesel or diesel hybrid buses. The electric buses—which cost more to operate than diesels—are forecast to reach the end of their lives in 2014, and the county must decide by next year how to replace them.

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“People are dismayed to think that we would give up our electric bus system,” says Rasmussen, chair of the council’s transportation committee. “They don’t pollute, don’t make noise, and work well on our hills." He is planning a forum—with a date to be announced—to build support for the trolleys.

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  • VIA Oran Viriyincy on Flickr
Speculation about scrapping the electric buses arose last September when King County, which operates the Metro bus system, conducted a transportation audit. Switching to hybrid buses would save $5.6 million annually, the report found. Diesel hybrid buses cost roughly $144,000 a year to operate and last for 16 years, while trolleys cost about $177,000 a year and last for 18 years. However, the report found, “Replacing the trolleys with hybrids would result in some added tailpipe emissions and noise in the neighborhoods currently being served by the trolleys."

The idea seems to be gaining traction. At a recent meeting of the Regional Transit Committee, Rasmussen says, “The question came up … whether to continue electric trolley buses,” he says. “I wanted to make clear we like our electric trolley buses.” Are people serious about scrapping the trolleys? "Big time," he says.

King County Department of Transportation spokeswoman Linda Thielke says, “... there has been no decision. It’s an option for us at this point.”

Members of the county council seem to be split; electric buses only operate in three of the county’s nine districts. Predictably, County Council Member Larry Phillips—who represents Capitol Hill and northeast Seattle—likes the trolleys, according to his staff, and plans to join Rasmussen in efforts to support for them. Philips also included a proviso in the 2010 budget requiring a public input. But some council members who represent districts outside Seattle don't think the suburbs should be subsiding the more expensive trolleys (suburbs produce about two-thirds of the county funding but only receive about one-third of the bus service). The council will study the issue next year. Ultimately, Metro will make recommendations to King County Executive Dow Constantine, and the county council will decide their fate as part of its annual budget.

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A representative for the Seattle Department of Transportation says he’s been conducting straw polls of neighborhood groups to gauge their support. However, he wouldn’t say what the straw poll found.

Rasmussen points out that, while operating electric buses costs more, the electricity is provided by Seattle City Light, a city-owned utility. He says some costs could be reduced by pooling a purchase with another city, such as Vancouver, B.C. "My goal is that our transit is all electric, whether it be on wire or battery."