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Expand trolley lines

New service shouldn’t be limited to Northeast Philly.

When my parents decided to uproot our family from South Philadelphia to East Mount Airy in the early 1950s, many neighbors regarded the move as akin to an interplanetary expedition.

The tether that bound the two "planets" about 14 miles apart, however, was a trolley line known as the Route 23 - one of many that wound through disparate sections of the city.

Those lines became all but extinct in recent years, as tracks and the overhead power lines that propelled those steel transportation hulks became regarded as unnecessary. Now, the trolleys are making a comeback in some cities, including Philadelphia - part of it.

Despite the addition of 38 trackless trolleys in Northeast Philly, the reluctance to add them throughout the city is baffling and ill-advised.

Trackless trolleys - which look very much like buses - aren't encumbered like their track-hugging predecessors. They are better able to maneuver, especially through the narrow streets in many neighborhoods.

Even better, they offer fuel savings, a concept met these days as a zephyr through a cluster of palms. SEPTA claims diesel buses cost $2.76 per mile to operate, while trolleys cost $2.54.

True, the trolleys cost about $1 million per unit, compared with about $400,000 for the buses. But they last an estimated average of 18 years compared with 12 years for the diesels. In addition, the trolleys have lower emissions and higher mileage efficiency.

Cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto are increasing the numbers of trackless trolleys. While visiting Boston, I was amazed at the ease with which I could get around on the trolleys. The fact that they were a "greener" pasture was even more reassuring. Boston now operates 28 trackless trolleys and 32 hybrid trackless trolleys which can run "off wire" when necessary, through use of their diesel generators.

The Philadelphia trolleys of old used to provide a din in the neighborhoods which became almost music to the ears of locals. I recall a cousin from Snyder Avenue in South Philadelphia who stayed with us in East Mount Airy, but was unable to sleep because he missed the sound of the trolley wheels scraping on the steel tracks.

In the 1944 Vincent Minnelli movie classic, Meet Me in St. Louis, the memorable lyrics of "Clang, clang, clang went the trolley," emerged for posterity. Those sounds were then a slice of Americana.

Not many would welcome the return of that "music," and they needn't. These contemporary versions speak softly as they carry the big weight.

Mayor Nutter is scheduled to meet with SEPTA to press this issue of trolley expansion. Let's hope SEPTA officials let the technology of the day carry them to their next scheduled stops.