It's been 22 years since trolleys clanged through Georgetown, but the District government is about to spend $250,000 in federal money to figure out whether a new trolley system should be started.
The idea is the brainchild of Ron M. Linton, a 55-year-old lobbyist here who almost single-handedly has pursued the idea since 1977 and won federal approval for the grant. Linton also serves as president of the nonprofit firm organized to supervise the study, the Georgetown and Foggybottom Trolley Co.
While some people are already scoffing at the project, Linton envisions the possibility of a 13-mile trolley system that would connect the Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan communities as "a complementary system to Metro.
"There's an awful lot of traffic that doesn't circulate very well," he said. "We want to find out if we can improve the quality of life in these neighborhoods.
"But it would have to operate without any public subsidy," Linton said. "We don't know if that can be done. That's what the study will find out."
The D.C. government last week picked Bechtel Civil & Minerals Inc., a subsidiary of the giant Bechtel engineering and construction company, to do the study, which is expected to take about nine months to complete.
Lest anyone think that a trolley will soon be rounding the corner, George Jivatode, the chief city transportation planner, cautioned that "there's a million questions they're going to have to look at. It's got a lot of negatives going in."
Linton said Bechtel will have to determine several things: how many people would ride trolleys; whether a system's operations could be financed by farebox receipts; the cost to build it; the type of power that should be used since federal law bans overhead trolley lines here; where the trolley routes should be, and whether some of the existing trolley lines, now buried under asphalt, could be used.
Juan Cameron, president of the Citizens Association of Georgetown, is among the skeptics even though he sits on the trolley firm's board.
"You begin to look at this carefully and you begin to wonder what the federal government is doing in this," Cameron said. "Here's the Reagan administration trying to whack the budget spending money on something like this."
But Linton's enthusiasm is unabashed. "There's an awful lot of money spent for a lot worse things," he said. "It's worth doing to put some of the questions to rest."
John Neff, an official of the American Public Transit Association, said modern trolley systems generally are built in cities where "you've got more traffic than can be handled by a bus system, but not enough for a subway."
Seven cities -- Newark, Boston, Cleveland, New Orleans, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- have long-standing trolley systems, while two others -- Buffalo and San Diego -- have built new ones, he said. Others are under construction in Portland, Ore., Sacramento and San Jose and 21 cities are studying the creation of trolley systems of some sort.
Linton said that, in the spring of 1977, he first approached Richard S. Page, then the Carter administration's chief of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, about the idea for the trolley study.
"I thought sure, it's worth studying, primarily because of the Georgetown traffic," said Page, who later became the general manager of the Metro system and now is head of a Seattle think tank called the Washington Roundtable.
Another former Metro general manager, Theodore C. Lutz, now a Washington Post vice president, saw no reason to oppose it. "I knew Georgetown was never going to have a Metro station, and so I figured if this idea would bloom, why not?"
The grant was approved in 1979 and the cost-conscious Reagan administration liked the idea. "Not only did we get no flack, the Reagan administration supported it because we're studying this on the basis of no public subsidy," Linton said.
An UMTA spokesman said simply, "Once a grant is made it's not going to get unmade."