Trackless trolleys -- electric trolleys that have rubber tires rather than running on rails like streetcars -- have been a distinctive feature of Seattle's transit system since 1940. Seattle became the first city in the country to rely largely on trackless trolleys when the city ripped out its original street-rail system in 1940 and 1941. These new vehicles retained the name "trolleys" because -- in common with the old streetcars -- they used "trolley poles" on their roofs to attach to overhead electric wires that provided their power. In ensuing decades, they remained part of Seattle's combined bus-and-trackless-trolley system, although buses gradually took prominence. Seattle's trackless trolleys nearly went extinct in the mid-1960s when authorities recommended scrapping them and going to an all-bus system. The trackless trolleys survived because they were cleaner and quieter than diesel-powered buses. In the 1980s and 1990s, Metro Transit nearly tripled the number of trolleys to 155. As of 2019, King County Metro Transit was operating 174 modern trackless trolleys, carrying about 20 percent of the system's passengers.
The story of Seattle's trackless trolleys got off to an inauspicious start in 1935 when a respected engineering firm, the John C. Beeler Organization, flatly rejected trackless trolleys as being "impracticable" for Seattle ("Report to the City of Seattle ...," 1935).
Beeler and his firm had been hired to study the Seattle Municipal Street Railway system and create a new, modern Seattle transit plan. A modern plan was desperately needed, because the city's street-rail system was outdated, inefficient, and hopelessly in debt. Replacing the old streetcars with modern buses was one obvious option. Another option: the rubber-tired trackless trolley, a relatively recent technology that had been tried successfully in other cities. However, the 1935 Beeler report firmly dismissed trackless trolleys in Seattle as impractical for several reasons -- foremost, the cost. Trackless trolleys required two overhead wires, as opposed to the single wire used by the existing streetcars. That meant the city would have to restring the entire system, and the initial cost would end up "three or four times" more expensive than other alternatives ("Report to the City of Seattle ...," 1935). Also, trackless trolleys had the same drawback as existing streetcars. They had to remain on a fixed route, yoked to their overhead wires, and were not adaptable like buses.
Because of this, the 1935 plan proposed a combined bus-and-rail system, keeping large parts of the streetcar system, but replacing some of the existing rail routes with gasoline-powered buses. The plan did not include a single trackless-trolley route. The city's streetcar workers endorsed the plan, because their jobs would largely survive. Yet this plan was never implemented, because it depended entirely on a $7 million federal New Deal loan. The loan never came through. Beeler's firm went back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan, which it issued in 1936.
A Complete U-turn
In this new plan, the firm did a complete U-turn on trackless trolleys. The 1936 plan called for 240 trackless trolleys -- the report called them "trolley coaches" -- along with 135 gasoline buses. It proposed scrapping the street-rail system altogether. Under this plan, the funding was going to come from a much larger loan -- $12 or $13 million -- funded through a bond issue financed by big New York bankers.
Why did Beeler do such a sudden and complete about-face on trackless trolleys? Because this time, the New York financiers insisted on it. They refused to even consider any plan that attempted to merely revamp the old street railway system. They believed that street rail was a thing of the past and any system that retained it was a bad risk. Cities all over the U.S. were ripping out their old streetcar lines.
The 1936 report justified the trackless trolley about-face by saying that the main objection to it -- its initial cost -- was no longer a problem since the new plan would have nearly twice as much funding as the old $7 million plan. Once the initial task of stringing new wires was accomplished, trackless trolleys would actually be more economical.
Seattle Mayor John F. Dore (1881-1938) and the streetcar workers' union opposed both buses and trackless trolleys and continued to push a plan that would retain most of the street railways. But the bankers stood firm. One of those bankers, Guy C. Meyers, succinctly outlined the case against streetcars: "Streetcars, cumbersome and slow, will not weave in and out of modern traffic. They force passengers to go into the middle of busy streets to climb aboard. This factor ... is corrected by the trackless trolley buses and gasoline buses" ("Seattle Railway Rejuvenation ..."). Trackless trolleys, like buses, could load and unload at the curb.
The city council eventually settled on a $12.5 million bond issue, which would pay off the old debt and leave $5 or $6 million for purchasing a new bus-and-trackless-trolley transit system. Beeler issued an updated report in January 1937, mostly reiterating the 1936 plan and claiming that the entire changeover from rails to rubber could be accomplished in 12 months.
This kicked off a furious public debate leading up to the March 9, 1937, vote on the bond issue. Dore continued to oppose it, siding with the street car workers' union, which believed that it would cost its members jobs. Dore acidly pointed out that Beeler had previously declared trackless trolleys "impracticable" for Seattle, not to mention financially unsound, and "then he [Beeler] gets hired by these people [the financiers] and so now he says the trackless trolley is the only thing for Seattle" ("Dore Questions Car Plan Vote"). On the other side, proponents of the plan printed elaborate brochures calling it a vote for modernization. "Horse Car Days Are Gone," they declared in a headline (Blanchard, 125).
The campaign culminated in a debate -- often more of a shouting match -- on the day before the election between Mayor Dore and city councilmember Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966). About 6,000 people jammed Seattle's Civic Auditorium to cheer, boo, catcall, and heckle. Dore went on the attack. He called the plan a "wicked swindle" and said the trackless trolley "is all right in its place; so's a pig" ("6,000 Cheer and Jeer").
The "pig," however, had proved its mettle the day before during a staged head-to-head race between a test version of a trackless trolley and the regular Queen Anne streetcar on rails. While crowds gathered around, both vehicles were timed as they climbed the steep Queen Anne Hill. The trackless trolley made it to the top twice as fast. The Seattle Times said the trackless trolley had "embarrassed" the Queen Anne counterbalance streetcar ("Trolley Coach Outraces Car").
This apparently did little to sway voters. On March 9, 1937, Seattle voters rejected the $12.5 million plan by a solid majority of 53,501 against versus 39,069 in favor. Dore relished the triumph and announced preliminary plans for a modest rehabilitation of the Seattle Municipal Street Railway, keeping the street-rail system intact, with no trackless trolleys, and simply replacing old streetcars as needed, "piece by piece" ("Dore Asks Council Foes to Resign").
Dore's plan, however, was ill-suited to reality. The Seattle Municipal Street Railway was in such deep financial trouble that it soon went bankrupt and no money remained for even a modest rehabilitation. Dore was defeated in a 1938 mayoral primary and his debating opponent, Langlie, became mayor. Langlie revived the original idea: a low-interest New Deal loan to pay off the debt and totally remake Seattle's transit system. Langlie went on record as saying, "I hope to have trackless trolleys principally, except in such districts where they aren't practical. These will be served by bus" ("Corning Gets Chance ...").
Beeler's firm issued a new report in 1939 that put to rest the debate over rail versus rubber, seemingly once and for all. It called for ripping out the old rail system and buying 235 trackless trolleys and 102 buses. The 1939 report, like the one from 1936, opted for trackless trolleys because it said they were more economical and had the advantage of loading at the curb. The report further noted that trackless trolleys were the best fit for many of Seattle's steepest routes -- including the old cable-car routes -- because no "self-propelled vehicle [bus] can exert a sustained tractive effort comparable to that of a vehicle of equal weight drawing its power from an electric power station" ("Transport System to Be Ready ...").
The New Deal loan came through -- $10.2 million from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. About half was earmarked to pay off the old system's debts, leaving $5.7 million to purchase a whole new rubber-tired transit system. The changeover proceeded with astonishing speed. New trackless trolley coaches and gas buses began arriving at the beginning of 1940. Exactly $1 million had been allocated to stringing new trolley wires to accommodate the two-wire trackless trolleys. Route by route, the new trolleys and buses began taking over, and the old streetcars were trundled off to the wrecking yard. The last streetcar clattered down the rails in Seattle on April 13, 1941. Seattle had 125 miles of trackless trolley routes, making it the first city in the U.S. with a largely trackless trolley transit system.
Surviving Over the Decades
Yet the trackless trolley would have to survive several near-death experiences over the next few decades. The first occurred in the mid-1960s, when the Seattle Transit Commission recommended scrapping the trackless trolleys -- which constituted an ever-diminishing percentage of the fleet -- and converting to an all-bus system. The entire transit system was having trouble competing with automobiles, and the commission concluded the electric rubber-tired trolleys were too costly compared to buses. But Seattle had plenty of trolley fans, and they organized under the name Committee for Modernization of Electric Transit, or COMET. In 1964, COMET placed a voter initiative on the ballot to save the trolleys. Seattle voters as whole, however, were not quite as enamored with trolleys. They rejected the COMET initiative by the overwhelming margin of 106,159 to 54,726. This appeared to be a death sentence for trackless trolleys.
A reprieve soon arrived. The city had had no money to buy new buses, so the replacement plan was put on hold. The old trackless trolleys continued to lumber up and down the city's streets. Meanwhile, the political climate was changing. People in Seattle were beginning to worry about smog and noise pollution. The quiet, emission-free trackless trolleys didn't seem so old-fashioned after all. In 1970, Seattle still had 56 rubber-tired trolleys and officials were no longer talking about scrapping them. In fact a 1971 Seattle Transit Commission analysis recommended that trackless trolleys be retained, and that they should constitute about 25 percent of the fleet.
In 1972, King County voters were asked whether to create a countywide Metro Transit agency, under the banner of Metro, the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, by merging the Seattle Transit System with the private suburban bus system. Trackless trolleys were not specifically an issue in this vote -- Metro had already declared that it planned to keep Seattle's trackless trolleys, to the consternation of some transit planners who still preferred buses.
Yet COMET appeared on the scene again and organized its own, competing ballot measure, which called for scrapping the buses altogether and creating an all-electric-trolley system. On September 19, 1972, COMET's trackless trolley proposal was trounced by Seattle voters, 68,562 to 27,442, but this by no means spelled doom for the trackless trolleys. The Metro Transit proposal won easily on the same day, and Metro was committed to keeping, and even revitalizing, the trackless-trolley fleet. The Seattle Transit System passed into history and the Metro Transit era began.
Champion of the Trackless Trolley
Metro Transit, as it turned out, would prove to be a champion of the trackless trolleys. Metro was already pledged to replacing the existing trackless-trolley fleet with 50 modern trackless trolleys. Then, after the 1973 gas crisis, electric trolleys began to look more attractive than ever to both the Seattle City Council and the Metro Council. In 1974, Metro staff recommended expanding the trackless-trolley system as part of a new "non-diesel" strategy ("Trolley Chronology"). Seven new electric routes were mapped out and approved and some existing routes were extended.
In 1975, the Metro Council approved a plan to buy 95 modern trolleys, and completely revamp and expand the city's overhead-wire system. The number of proposed trolley purchases was eventually boosted to 109 -- nearly twice the number in the existing, aging fleet. The new plan also called for nearly doubling the number of miles in the city's trolley routes, from 32 to 57.
At a ceremony on January 21, 1978, trolley fans -- and Seattle still had plenty -- were given rides on a 1940s-era trolley. Then officials threw a switch and cut the electricity to the city's entire trolley-wire system. The $37 million rehabilitation and expansion program was underway. All of the old trolleys were sent to the barn, replaced by diesel buses while new wire was strung and substations installed. Metro hoped that the new modern wiring system would be finished by early 1979, and that all of the new modern trolleys would be rolling on the new larger network by mid-1979.
It didn't quite work out that way. Work went more slowly than expected, costs went up, and delays occurred in procuring the 109 new A.M. General trolleys. In mid-1979 there were still no trolleys back on Seattle streets. Finally, on September 14, 1979, the first of the new trackless trolleys carried passengers up Capitol Hill and Queen Anne Hill. Seattle City Council member George Benson (1919-2004), "a trolley fan all his life," declared:
"Metro reinvented an electric trolley technology that had almost died out in the country ... We have made the best, quietest, pollution-free transit system in the United States" ("Street Fleet").
Many other routes remained unfinished. The entire project was not completed until 1981. This was a longer-than-expected interruption in service, yet in the long run it marked a triumph for trackless trolleys in Seattle. The Seattle Times noted in 1979:
"Seattle is one of the few cities to give trolley buses a second chance. Many cities which built trolley lines in the 1930s and 1940s long since have ripped them out in favor of diesel coaches.
"Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco are the two other West Coast cities that continue to operate large numbers of trolleys" ("Trolleys Will Be Back ...").
Metro head Neil Peterson said in 1983, "Only five cities in North America have electric trolleys, and we're the only one that has rebuilt its entire system. ... Trolleys make sense in our environment, given the hills and given our relatively cheep electric power" ("Metro -- Take Me I'm Yours"). Trackless trolleys remained firmly cemented in Seattle's transit mix.
Metro expanded trackless-trolley operations through the next several decades. In 1986, it bought 46 articulated (bendable) trolleys, which could hold 65 passengers instead of 45. By 1992, Metro was operating 155 trackless trolleys and had added several new trolley routes.
Still a Ubiquitous Sight
The Puget Sound region's transit scene was remade with the advent of Sound Transit in 1996 and the launch of its Link light-rail system in 2009. Yet Metro (now officially called King County Metro Transit) continued to play a crucial role in the region's interconnected system. It fanned out into neighborhoods, hooking commuters up with Link stations. And trackless trolleys were still a ubiquitous sight, charging up Seattle's big hills and rolling one after another through downtown.
In 2015, King County Metro had 174 trackless trolleys, which constituted 12 percent of the entire fleet. And they carried 20 percent of the system's weekday riders, because they were on some of the city's busiest and most popular central routes. King County Executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961) said that "electric trolleys are ideal for moving people in dense urban environments" ("King County Launches ...").
That same year, King County Metro began replacing its entire trackless-trolley fleet with modern trackless trolleys in a distinctive purple color. The first five replacements arrived in August 2015. Within two years, the entire fleet was replaced with 174 new trolleys that used 30 percent less energy than the old 1980s trolleys. They also had a new feature: A battery allowed them to run free from their overhead wires for short distances, in order to swerve around crashes or other obstructions.
In 2015, King County Metro was also testing a new kind of bus -- an all-electric bus with a rechargeable battery that could go 23 miles on one charge. It required no wires or trolley poles. However, this battery-powered bus was not intended to replace Seattle's electric trolleys. It was intended to replace the diesel buses.
As of 2019, there was no sign that trackless trolleys or their trolley poles would disappear from Seattle's streets. King County Metro was proud of its trackless trolleys. It remained the most crucial component of the agency's stated goal of achieving a zero-emission fleet. So when people lift their gaze from the pavement and glance up at the sky, they'll continue to see two distinctive Seattle sights: the Space Needle and a web of overhead trolley wires.