IT'S HAPPY TIMES here in monorail country.
The little elevated train that couldn't has become the star of city government, in part due to the strong public support for last November's Initiative 53. An even bigger factor is the $6 million in city money that initiative transferred into the coffers of the Elevated Transportation Company (the group in charge of developing the monorail), which means monorail backers don't have to beg city officials for bucks to hire staff and contract with consultants.
The latest good news is the addition of two major players, ETC executive director Harold Robertson and new ETC board chair Tom Weeks. The newly hired Robertson was the longtime executive director of the Thurston Regional Planning Council, which prepares regional plans and policies on growth management, transportation, and the environment. He is also a former King County planning manager.
Weeks, a former two-term City Council member, may be the more important acquisition. A part of the probusiness mid-1990s councils that endorsed most of former Mayor Norm Rice's downtown initiatives, Weeks could be the major political player the monorail effort has always lacked. Plus, he's a fresh face.
"A lot of us were run down" from 2000's death march, says outgoing board chair Tom Carr. "[Weeks] has been just terrific—he came in with all kinds of energy and excitement."
Monorail backers had every reason to be tired. In February 2000, Mayor Paul Schell and council member Richard McIver helped block a potentially lifesaving $50,000 grant to the ETC. A few months later, the Seattle City Council legislatively gelded the monorail effort. Enter attorney Peter Sherwin and Initiative 53. Rallying under the slogan "We Said Monorail," single-rail enthusiasts argued that the city needed to spend the money for professional studies and come up with a concrete plan for a monorail system. Some 56 percent of the voters agreed.
And having been whupped at the ballot box twice (the original 1997 monorail initiative passed by a similar margin), everyone at City Hall is joining the love-in. "It's an entirely different political atmosphere," says Weeks. "We've had great support from the mayor that we didn't have before."
McIver, chair of the Council's Transportation Committee and the monorail's most vocal critic among officeholders, is still taking a wait-and-see attitude, however. His major complaint with the earlier monorail review was that he never got specifics about routes, costs, and estimated ridership that he needed to make a decision—not even so much as a per-mile cost estimate for monorail construction. "I think we'll get it this time," he says grudgingly.
The ETC's Carr says his group will deliver even more than McIver wants. Initiative 53 requires that a ballot-ready proposal containing a definitive monorail route and a clear funding plan be submitted to the City Council by next November. Carr has no doubt about making that deadline. Initiative 53 actually mandates that the city then submit a monorail proposal to voters, but that provision may not be legally enforceable, admits Carr. "We're hoping to have a plan that's so good that there's no question that [the City Council] will put it on the ballot."
Of course, there may be obstacles once a plan is set down in black and white. Although current monorail technology allows for smaller supports than the existing monorail's massive concrete pillars, monorail lines would block some travel lanes on city streets. View impacts are also a major concern. And the cost of the system could send the monorail crashing back down to earth.
But Weeks argues that an above-ground transportation system will continue to charm Seattle's voters. And, as cities work to counter the growth of single-occupant vehicle use, there are more success stories to point to. Vancouver recently completed a 10-mile expansion of its elevated rail system in less than a year and a half.
"The more we bring forward information and we bring data on cost and feasibility, the more people who have been traditionally skeptical are bringing an open mind," notes Weeks. "And that's all we can ask at this point."