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Members of the public filled Tower Square at 13th and P streets for the annual Winter Lights celebration Friday night, braving the cold to see Mayor Chris Beutler present the third annual Lincoln Luminary Award and unveil two new trolleys being added to the city's public transit fleet.

The event gave people a chance to ride the new trolleys for free and also featured live music by the Lincoln Northeast High School Chamber Singers and the La Iglesia De La Comunidad Church band.

This year's Luminary Award honorees, tasked with turning on the downtown holiday lights for the first time this holiday season, were Jim McKee and Linda Hillegass, longtime owners of Lee Booksellers.

Hillegass' contributions to Lincoln nonprofits, including the Lincoln Literary Council, the Food Bank of Lincoln and the Lincoln City Libraries, made her worthy of the Luminary Award, Beutler said.

McKee is a well-known local historian who also owns The Coinery and operates a publishing business. He said the trolleys were a "nostalgic homage" to the historic Lincoln trolleys.

"When electricity came to Lincoln, we were one of the first to have an electric trolley system," he said. "By the 1890s, we had the seventh-longest amount of trackage. Fifteen years ago, we had other trolleys in Lincoln that just circulated downtown between the capitol building, the County-City Building and the university and they were a dime.

"That's what these are, an extension of that."

The trolleys, fueled by compressed natural gas, were purchased as part of an effort to replace Lincoln's 17-year-old buses, which are losing fuel efficiency and are expensive to maintain. Each trolley costs about $437,000, and the city received $231,000 per trolley from different grants. 

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Implementing the trolleys into normal use was not a simple undertaking. The original start date was planned for spring 2017 before mechanical issues forced the city to exchange the units. National Bus Sales, the company handling the Lincoln order, sold its assets to a new company and the paperwork was never transferred, halting the city's order.

In November, the two new trolleys arrived, but needed to pass inspection and be outfitted with fare boxes and automatic vehicle-location equipment.

From now until February, the trolleys will be free to ride. After that, fares will be 25 cents. The 13-stop route will run from the state Capitol to Pinnacle Bank Arena weekdays between 6:15 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or wstone@journalstar.com.

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