Transit Throwback – Downtown Yakima Trolley Bus

Every now and then, a new proposal for a downtown transit circulator comes up in Yakima. Most recent was the idea of reintroducing streetcar service on Yakima Avenue using the heritage streetcars currently owned by Yakima Valley Trolleys. In the past, there’s even been proposals to add new lines just about everywhere in the city, from the former mill site just northeast of downtown or the SunDome at the Yakima County Fairgrounds, or even a proposal to run a commuter-service along the line between Selah and Yakima. Usually with downtown circulator proposals, most cities propose running them with “replica trolley” buses, and Yakima was no exception to that trend when they tried it in the early 1990’s.

Yakima Trolley Bus Photo Credit: AP/The Spokesman Review (6/8/1991)

Yakima Trolley Bus
Photo Credit: AP/The Spokesman Review (6/8/1991)

Starting operations in the first week of June 1991, the trolleys ran on two routes in Downtown Yakima. One route served Yakima Avenue directly, while the other weaved along side streets in the area connecting riders to the main shopping destinations on Yakima Avenue. To start the service, the city spent $109,000 each on four new “replica trolley” buses, along with an additional $60,000 to promote the service to residents and visitors. Unlike conventional Yakima Transit routes, the bus operators on the trolley service had special uniforms that among other things included a derby hat and a bowtie. The service charged no fares, and riders could hop on and off at multiple stops along Yakima Avenue, along with stops at parking lots near the downtown shopping areas.

Of course, the service was not without controversy. Originally backed with unanimous support from the city council, it quickly became a lightning rod for criticism. Residents questioned why the city was spending nearly $400,000 just to operate the service for the first year when Yakima Transit routes already ran in the area, and merchants outside of downtown were upset about the “favoritism” the city was showing to downtown merchants with the service. Support for the trolley service started to erode soon after that.

Surprisingly, the trolley made it past the first year of operations. In fact, it continued running until the end of 1994, when the city decided to finally pull the plug. Bill Schultz, then the transit manager for the city, said: “Essentially, the decision to drop trolley service was based on this: “Trolleys are not a basic service. They are downtown people movers. This is not an essential.”

It was around this same time that Spokane Transit Authority was getting ready to launch their “replica trolley” service between the newly opened Plaza and the North Bank area just north of downtown. (This is the service that now operates as Route 1.) One local journalist proposed having STA buy the buses from Yakima, but by then they had already secured their own buses for the service. Yakima later sold their buses by sealed bid.

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