YAKIMA, Wash. — What was supposed to be a centennial celebration for one of Yakima’s iconic attractions has dissolved into a dispute of legalities, ethics and education.
And in the end, schools could end up paying for a portion of trolley operations.
As sometimes happens in Yakima, the problem began with a crime. Starting back in 2005, criminals made off with several miles of overhead wiring that powered the Yakima Valley Trolleys, a tourist attraction touted as the nation’s last intact, early 20th century, interurban electric railroad.
The nonprofit trolley group, eventually found funding to replace the wiring and had planned to install it in time to power a run to Selah on June 21, the centennial of the line’s first run to that city.
But getting railroad equipment to the area needing repairs hit a roadblock when a section of track was buried under a layer of dirt by a contractor working on the $97 million remodel and expansion of Davis High School, which is adjacent to the tracks.
Before work began, the school district agreed to keep the tracks “in usable conditions at all times,” according to a mitigation agreement reached by the school district and the city in March 2012.
That didn’t happen.
Earlier this year, trolley officials tried to get the school district and contractor, Absher Construction of Puyallup, to clear the tracks by March, which would have been enough time to restring wire and replace other missing or damaged equipment on the Selah line, said Ken Johnsen, president of the trolley association.
After failing to make headway, the trolley group in late April asked city officials to get involved, which they did.
Within a few days of the city’s intervention, the district and its contractor agreed to clear the tracks by this Friday.
But “it will not be enough time now to get all the wire strung up in time for the centennial,” Johnsen said in an email to the Yakima Herald-Republic.
Now the city, which owns the right-of-way where the track runs, has told the school district it must pay for an auxiliary power unit, which would push the trolley to Selah and can operate without power lines.
“If they want to continue using the easement, then the compensation needs to be a power car” for the trolley, said Debbie Cook, Yakima’s director of utilities and engineering.
The trolley association has been searching for an auxiliary power car, but it can’t afford the unanticipated expense of several thousand dollars, Johnsen said.
School district officials said they have not yet received a copy of the city’s letter, but Superintendent Elaine Beraza said trolley representatives never said they had problems with delays in clearing the tracks adjacent to Davis High School.
Beraza was skeptical about the idea of using education dollars to pay for a power car.
“So, just to make this clear, we’re going to take the kids’ money and use it to make the trolley run?” she said.
But that argument misses the mark, Cook said. “The highest priority should be doing the legal, ethical and correct thing. Period. Where it goes from there, we can talk about that.”
Despite the delay and other hurdles, Johnsen said, trolley supporters haven’t given up yet on making the centennial Selah run.
“This will be our triumphant return,” he said.
The day’s details are still being worked out, but a ceremony will precede the run, which is slated to start at 10 a.m. from the trolley barns at the corner of West Third Avenue and Pine Street in Yakima. A celebration will follow the trolley’s arrival in Selah about an hour later.
The centennial run is critical to moving forward with plans to reopen the Selah line, which is the trolley’s main attraction but hasn’t regularly run since thieves started stripping the line in 2005.
The group has gathered enough supplies to replace the stolen metal, and plans to install an alarm system that will immediately alert police to any vandalism, Johnsen said.
The city’s trolley system, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is billed as the country’s last intact, turn-of-the-century interurban electric railroad. But it is, really, a shell of what it was in its heyday, when it operated more than 40 miles of track reaching to places like Wiley City and Selah.
“Interurbans like that played a tremendous role in urban growth in communities across the country,” said Richard Anderson, director of the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie.
But electric streetcars were done in by the ascendent automobile in the 1930s and 1940s.
Today, Yakima’s trolleys are limited to a few blocks near Davis High School on summer weekends and holidays.
At least one of the trolley association’s two cars built in 1928 and purchased by the city from Oporto, Portugal, in the 1970s, will make the Selah run on June 21, said Ed Neel, one of the group’s board members. “If we have to drag the thing over the gap, we’ll do it.”
“Without the Selah run, there isn’t much fun in just running eight blocks,” Neel said.