Seattle's new trolley system: gearing up for the 1990s

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Seattle now has a trolley system it can be proud of. In 1972, King County's Metro Council announced its "1980 plan," promising to improve facilities and service. Now, the promise has been fulfilled and 55 miles of new overhead wires power 109 modern trolleys and Metro Transit is working on its "1990 plan."

The new trackless trolleys run smoothly on rubber tires, pick up and discharge passengers at the curb, and give a pollution-free ride in roomy attractively decorated coaches. Swiss-made switch controls transfer trolley poles from one wire to another when the turn signal is activated.

In 1972, when only 30 miles of overhead wiring and about 50 vintage trolleys were still in existence, King County voters approved a 0.3 percent sales tax increase, which raised $5.2 million of the $46 million needed to buy the old system from the city. The city reinvested the money to obtain a matching federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration grant for the remainder of the purchase price.

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Trolleys are not the only innovative part of the system. In 1978 the Metro council decided to make its vehicles fully accessible to disabled and elderly persons. Now, there are 259 wheelchair lift-equipped buses serving 47 routes throughout Seattle and King County.

Can Seattle escape the near-collapse of public transportation plaguing other cities? "If any city can do it, Seattle will, because of its low-cost hydropower," George Benson says. Electric trolleys, however, account for only 109 of the 1,000 Metro Transit buses in service.

According to Metro's execu tive director, Neil Peterson, two factors help explain the system's success: articulated (bendable) buses and part-time drivers.

Metro Transit has 150 articulated buses and delivery of 202 more will begin in November. The coaches, which seat 72 passengers (regular buses 45), feature steering geometry to allow the trailer section to "track" the front section, two wide doors that permit riders to enter and exit at the same time, and a "hinged" middle section for easy turning.

An important cost saver is the part-time driver contract negotiated by Metro Transit in January 1978 with the Amalgamated Transit Union. According to Dave Johnston, president of the local union, it created tension between full-time drivers who have benefits and the part-timers without benefits. The union, working without a contract since Oct. 31, 1980, is trying to get benefits for part-tim ers.

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