Bring back trolley buses for Baltimore

April 23, 2001|By Robert C. Keith

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley's West Side Strategic Plan includes a recommendation for a light rail line on Baltimore and Fayette streets, linking the west side with the rest of downtown.

There's surely need for a transit loop on these two east-west streets, but use of the Mass Transit Administration's light rail cars would be overkill. They are among the biggest such cars in the industry and would overwhelm Baltimore and Fayette streets the way they now overwhelm Howard Street.

For many reasons, foremost the urgent need for clean-fuel transit vehicles on downtown streets, the time has come to revisit a technology that Baltimore introduced in 1922 -- the trackless trolley, a bus that draws its power from overhead electric wires but runs on tires.

A line on Liberty Road between Gwynn Oak Junction and Randallstown ran for 10 years until supplanted by buses in 1932, according to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. Six trackless lines operated in the city between 1940 and 1959 before introduction of the more versatile diesel buses.

Nobody thought much about the environment then. Saving money was the motivation for substituting trackless services for streetcars since trolley buses can run on existing roadways without the expense of laying tracks.

Today, when environmental sensitivity drives the major transportation decisions, the trackless trolley is a downtown planner's dream. Unlike a bus propelled by compressed natural gas, the trackless trolley doesn't need fuel tanks, leaving more room for more passengers. Electricity powers the heat and air conditioning as well as the wheels and the trolley does not emit carbon dioxide, as does a natural-gas bus.

Further, the trolley bus can change lanes and swing in and out of traffic with the same ease as a fuming diesel bus, but silently and without leaving a trail of smoke, ozone, nitrogen oxides or other killer pollutants.

The trackless trolley is widely used in Europe and is experiencing a reaffirmation in North America, especially in cities that gave it up in the 1950s and still have the overhead wires to sustain it.

Dayton, Ohio, bought 57 such buses for its fleet in 1999 and San Francisco purchased 280 of them last year. Vancouver, British Columbia, wants up to 265 vehicles to replace its fleet in the downtown historic area. Trolley buses are also still used in Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston and Edmonton, Canada. One of the major suppliers is AAI Corp. in Hunt Valley, which imports the bodies from the Czech Republic.

The cost of stringing wire for electric buses, including support poles, is estimated to be about $400,000 a mile.

The vehicles are more expensive to purchase and maintain than diesel buses. But, as Vancouver's TransLink agency reports, trolley buses on downtown streets "are favored by customers for their cleanliness, quietness and even ride."

In cities like Baltimore, which are struggling to meet national clean air standards, special federal funds are available to help make up cost differentials for vehicles that demonstrably reduce air pollution.

The potential for the trolley bus in downtown Baltimore is gaining favor as planners see the significance of having transportation hubs that link the traditional bus lines with existing light rail and subways.

The long-distance commuter buses can feed into the hubs at Shot Tower, Camden Yards, Lexington Market and the Baltimore Arena. The trolley buses can link the hubs with each other.

The trolley bus could be an adjunct and stalking horse for the streetcar line now under consideration as an east-west connector between the Inner Harbor and East Baltimore. It could continue out Boston Street and beyond.

It could also provide a link up Broadway to the Johns Hopkins subway station and northward to Morgan State University. It could even find its way into mainline service, replacing diesel vehicles on the heavily traveled Nos. 3, 8, 15 and 23 lines.

Public health experts from the Johns Hopkins Medical Center are studying the environmental impact of fossil fuel vehicle traffic on residential streets, where the buildings crowd the traffic lanes.

The trolley bus needs to raise its poles again as part of Baltimore's answer to Code Red pollution problems.

Robert C. Keith writes from Fells Point on transportation issues.

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