Ta-ta trolleys ...
Ta-ta trolleys …
... hello ZeroBus
… hello ZeroBus

They’re green, adorably retro, and practically a moving part of Louisville’s cultural topography.

They’re also loud, not all that comfortable, and green in paint color only, as they are the most polluting part of the TARC fleet.

We’re talking about the Louisville trolleys, of course. And they’re soon going to be gone, for the most part, and replaced with a sleek fleet of new, zero-emissions busses, called the “ZeroBus.”

The new busses are coming, and the trolleys are going, quite soon, said Kay Stewart, marketing director for TARC. “The busses are being prepared now, and the drivers will begin training on them soon–expect to see them around in testing next month and in operation around the end of (the) year,” she said, in an email.

Though the busses will look quite different than the old-timey trolleys, some things will remain unchanged, said Stewart, including the fact that they will remain fare-free. They also will take over most of the current trolley routes, including the first Friday Market Street Trolley Hop.

A few of the current trolleys will continue to be used for the Frankfort Avenue Trolley hop on the last Friday of each month. This is to be their last remaining job in Louisville.

Of course the current fleet of trolleys are not actual, traditional, electric trolleys, such as they have in San Francisco. Rather they are replicas of those kinds of trolleys, and run on diesel fuel. As such they are noise and pollution-generation machines.

They’re not all that old, either. Five of the fleet of 10 trolley busses went into action in 1997, with the remaining five engaged in 2005.

Information from TARC estimates the new ZeroBusses will save the city $110,000 per year in diesel fuel, with a projected $1.76 million saved over the projected 16-year life of the new bus fleet.

Maintenance also will be cheaper on the new busses, saving an estimated $200,000 per year.

The 10 electric busses, and their two charging stations, will cost approximately $11 million. Some $8.8 million of that funding came from federal and state grants, with $500,000 coming from the city.

What about that extra $1.7 million? In an emailed response, Stewart said: “We are looking for additional local contributions to help offset the remaining required local matching funds for the grants for the all-electric buses.”

So, yes, that means the ZeroBusses are still not fully funded.

TARC says Louisville will be the first city in the Midwest and upper South to have these “vehicles of the future,” as they called them, on the road. Also the new bus fleet will be the largest of its kind in the country, and all the busses are made in America, by the firm Proterra, Inc, of Greenville, S.C. Since 2010 Proterra has made 38 busses total.

One current trolley driver, who requested anonymity, said the new busses were supposed to have been in action since last month and are already in TARC garages. “But I don’t know what the holdup is,” the driver said.

TARC’s Stewart said some of the busses are being built now as well. Each bus is made to order, as they are highly specialized, and it’s not like there are lots of them sitting idle.

Another reason for the delays is that the two charging stations also are currently being constructed. One will be on Market Street, near the Glassworks building, and the other will be near the Main Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library system, at Third and York Streets. The busses are supposed to only take a few minutes to charge, and are supposed to work without the driver having to get out of the bus to do the charging.

The busses also are supposed to be extremely quiet. Plus, being electric, they are actually more in the spirt of Louisville’s long-gone original lines of electric trolleys than the current fleet.

IL spoke with businesses along the current East Market trolley route to see what they thought about the new busses. Overall, people were either neutral, or mildly positive, and mostly understood it’s better to replace the older units with something cleaner.

But there were some complaints.

“I wish there were some way to make it look cooler than that,” said Mo McKnight Howe, the owner of the Revelry Boutique Gallery in NuLu.

“It looks almost like a bug,” added Megan Tierney, who works in merchandizing at Revelry. Indeed, that was a common comment: the busses look like they have antennae.

Howe recommended the city hire some local artists to paint the busses and make them unique to Louisville.

Robert Campbell, store manager at green home goods supply store Honest Home, said the charm factor is less important than whether the busses will have the same density of use as the trolleys. He also said the zero emissions factor about it is fantastic, though he too noted “the design’s pretty swoopy.”

Correction: This story initially incorrectly placed the Main Branch of the Louisville Public Library at Third and Main Streets. IL regrets the error.

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David Serchuk
David Serchuk is a staff writer at Insider Louisville. He is a former editor at Forbes.com, and an ex-reporter at Forbes magazine. He's written for NPR, CNBC.com, New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville and other publications named for places. He enjoys writing about business, music and other things as well.