Nautical Splash For Trolley Bus -- Metro Expansion Project Adds Artistic Touch

Driftwood, sailing masts and abstract art are among the major elements of Metro's trolley-expansion project under construction on a route between downtown and the University District.

In addition to nearly six miles of new overhead trolley lines, three power substations and dozens of support poles, Metro is following a nautical theme to try to blend the trolley system into neighborhoods.

The one-year project will turn Route 70, between downtown and the U District, into an electric-only trolley-bus line that will offer riders cleaner, quieter and faster service.

But construction, expected to continue through next summer, will mean torn-up sidewalks to make way for new poles, limited parking and some street closures between Northeast 52nd Street and South Main Street.

Metro had planned to electrify the heavily used corridor between Downtown and the U District for more than 13 years, but a lack of funding and public support had stalled the project, according to Metro spokeswoman Wendy Chin.

A revised plan and federal funding now makes the project possible, she said.

For the first time in more than two decades, new overhead trolley lines will be strung along Eastlake Avenue East, Fairview Avenue North, Boren Avenue, and Virginia and Stewart streets, connecting to existing trolley lines in the downtown area. Trolley buses should be running by next fall, officials predict.

Without delays converting from electric to diesel power coming out of the downtown bus tunnel or switching to existing U District overhead wires, service should be faster and more frequent, officials added. Electricity is less expensive than diesel fuel, they said.

The project will cost $19 million, with 80 percent being financed by a Federal Transit Administration grant, Chin said.

"One of the ironies about this is if you look at the old Seattle Transit electric trolleys, they used to run through the same area," she added, pointing out that trolley wires and trolley buses preceded the diesel buses that have traveled the route for years.

Seattle's trolley-bus system started in 1940, when it replaced a public streetcar system that was established in the early 1900s. Seattle's was among the largest trolley systems in the country.

Over time, most of the system was replaced by diesel-fueled buses, and several miles of trolley wire were removed. Metro assumed ownership of the network from Seattle Transit in 1973.

While some critics argue that trolley lines are unattractive, Metro officials think the lines can become a work of art. Local artist Carolyn Law has been commissioned to help "blend" the trolley system into communities along the route:

-- In the Cascade neighborhood, along Fairview Avenue North between Denny Way and Valley Street, a series of art objects will be arranged on pieces of driftwood and attached to support poles.

-- Metro also plans to design kinetic masts - long poles that will move with the wind - attached to support poles along the west side of Fairview Avenue near Valley Street, Chin said.

-- In the Eastlake community, artists will paint abstract designs on four support poles at the intersection of Eastlake Avenue East and East Hamlin Street. Law also plans to use an assortment of rods and spools from the trolley system to create designs above the cables.

To power the trolley line, Metro plans to build three substations - each about the size of a one-car garage. Two of them will be near Eastlake Avenue East and East Galer and East Allison streets, just south of the University Bridge. Another will be on the east side of Interstate 5 near Northeast 45th Street.

Seattle now has 56 miles of trolley lines. The Route 70 project will bring the total to more than 61 miles.