The monorail's last ride?

A funding crunch could eclipse Seattle's dream of elevated transportation.

Is the monorail about to run out of juice?

In November 1997, 52.6 percent of Seattle voters approved the creation of the Elevated Transportation Company and gave it a "hunting license" to go out and get private money to build, own, and operate a 41-mile, X-shaped monorail system to serve all parts of the city. Since that time, the ETC has held two years of intriguing theoretical discussions.

Unfortunately, now we're talking money.

In the short term, it's a question of simply keeping the lights on. The ETC has never been a big-budget operation. A 12-member volunteer "governing council" and one paid staff person have battled to bring Seattle's elevated dream to fruition. They have already stretched a one-year $200,000 allocation from the Seattle City Council to fund two years of operation, and about $30,000 is left in the pot—enough to run the ETC for three or four more months. The City Council has set aside another $50,000 for monorail planning but requires the ETC to privately raise some $61,000 in matching funds to tap it. According to ETC council chair Tom Carr, efforts to secure grants from private organizations failed, largely due to the group's pseudo-public status. So far the ETC has raised only about $5,000 in private donations.

As two years have passed since Seattle voters backed the Monorail Initiative (I-41), the City Council, which has never been a hotbed of monorail support, could by law take advantage of the funding crunch to pull the plug on the effort.

Monorail backers argue that their work so far has been a success. Fourteen companies expressed interest earlier this year in entering a partnership to operate and maintain a monorail system, provided of course the public picks up at least a significant share of construction costs. Some companies have already dreamed up starter-line proposals for the monorail effort: Railsafe, which operates the Seattle Center-to-downtown monorail, is touting a new downtown loop route linking the sports stadiums with the Seattle Center and First Hill; the Jefferson Group suggests a University District circulator line. Some heavyweights are included in the discussions, such as Mitsui/Hitachi, the partnership that has constructed several of Japan's operating monorail systems.

Supporters say the cost of a new monorail system will run at least $35 million per mile; the Railsafe group has somewhat higher estimates, predicting that its proposed seven-mile downtown loop would cost between $300 million and $500 million to construct.

But realization of the dream of getting the project off the ground with only private capital seems unlikely. Even the most enthusiastic proponents now acknowledge that the city will have to fund at least part of the construction costs for the system—and the private companies are waiting to see evidence of the city's commitment.

"We're in a chicken and egg situation here," says ETC council member Kristina Hill. "We have to show public support to get a private partner; we have to get a private partner to get public support."

Some ETC officials would like to see a specific monorail starter project—or at least a permanent funding source for the ETC—on the ballot, perhaps as soon as this November. Alec Fisken joined the ETC council shortly after he was eliminated from a race for a City Council seat in September. "I was intrigued by [the monorail], because when I was trotting around campaigning, everybody asked about it," he says. "Everybody had an interest in it."

The monorail plan still has its critics, too, including supporters of Sound Transit's light rail proposal, who see it as a distraction. Roger Pence, a transportation planner and neighborhood activist who debated against the monorail initiative in 1997, says the package was sold to voters based on the assumption that private companies would pick up all costs. "I think it's time for them to be honest with the public," he says. "The idea that some billionaire is going to come in and start building this thing without some guarantee of public dollars is naive in the extreme." Pence, who was employed briefly as a Sound Transit consultant, says monorail backers need to get a comprehensive system proposal, complete with cost figures, and present the facts to government officials and the public.

Even supporters agree that the ambitious monorail proposal included in the 1997 ballot issue (the X-shaped system serving all corners of the city) isn't in the cards. "This is certainly not going to be a big X that covers the whole city," notes Fisken, who would like to see a starter line "that can operate perfectly well on its own, but would also make a good piece of a larger system."

Fisken contends that the city would be wise to keep the ETC in operation long enough to allow for study of specific routes and negotiations with potential private partners. Fixing the region's transportation problems is a task with no miracle cures, just incremental improvements that could include a monorail system, he says. "This may very well have a role in resolving the city's transportation problems."

As the ETC waits for word on its financial future, it is accepting donations through its Web site (www.elevated.org). All major credit cards are accepted.

 
comments powered by Disqus