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New Trolley Buses: Metro's Cheaper, Greener Option

Hansi Lo Wang

Mike Frund is a bus driver for King County Metro. And his favorite kind of bus to drive? The electric trolley.

Frund: "You know, it's a lot of fun to drive a trolley. It just sounds good. I'm breathing clean air. I'm not breathing diesel. The passengers aren't breathing diesel."

A new study says Metro should replace its aging trolley buses with new ones, instead of switching to diesel hybrids. KUOW's Hansi Lo Wang has our report.


King County Metro runs three main types of buses; traditional diesel buses, hybrid diesel–electric buses and electric trolley buses.

Trolley buses are the ones with two poles sticking up on top. The poles are connected to electric wires strung over streets. To find out how the buses compare from an expert's perspective, I hopped on a trolley bus with driver Mike Frund.

Frund: "So you want to ride around the corner?"

Wang: "Yeah, if you don't mind. I have a ticket, too."

Frund: "I'm glad you made it."

Wang: "Do we need new buses — new trolleys, I mean?"

Frund: "Oh yeah! You know, I mean they have a lot of wear and tear, I mean, up and down these hills."

Frund tells me on any given weekday, trolleys carry about one–fifth of Metro's riders on just 14 trolley routes.

Frund: "You know, busy, busy, busy. Really, really useful bus."

Frund says he's been driving Metro buses for 29 years, and from the start he's always preferred trolleys.

Wang: "Why do you pick a trolley over ... ?"

Frund: "Well, you got to have a little more expertise to be a trolley driver. It takes a little more skill. And you can look good at it, and you can feel good. And it's different. You know, there's only five cities in America that have trolleys, and we're one of them."

Frund says this trolley bus that we're on is 21 years old, and that's partly why Metro is evaluating its fleet of 159 trolley buses. Here's the agency's Christina O'Claire.

O'Claire: "The buses have outdated electrical systems. The bus frames are cracked, and some of the parts are difficult to replace."

Wang: "Does that mean it's dangerous for riders right now to be riding on them?"

O'Claire: "No, no, these buses are safe to ride. Our primary concern right now is that the maintenance costs of these are quite high."

A 2009 audit found that Metro could save almost $9 million if the Transit Authority replaced electric trolley buses with diesel hybrid buses. That's because new diesel hybrids are cheaper to buy and maintain. But O'Claire says there is a hidden cost to retiring electric trolleys.

O'Claire: "We would have to decommission the entire electrical system. That would include tearing down the wires, tearing down the transformers and the substations, etc. And that has a huge cost to it; about $40 million."

Back on route 44, Frund weaves his trolley bus through traffic, totally unfazed by my efforts to interview him.

Wang: "And I understand the trolleys make relatively little sound, right? Compared to others?"

Frund: "Right, people are unaware. If you get off the bus and listen, and it's just ... (Frund imitates sound of loud bus engine). You know, just to move the bus, and it's just like, 'What is this for?' It's a quality of life issue, you know? It's just too noisy. And this is quiet, quiet, quiet, you know."

Frund is glad trolley buses are quiet and cost–effective enough for preliminary analysis from the Metro study to recommend sticking with electric trolleys.

The study's final report will go to the County Council on May 31. Metro is still accepting public comments on the plan, and officials say the replacement buses — whatever they choose — will hit the streets by late 2014.

For KUOW News, I'm Hansi Lo Wang.

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