Fight the monorail!

Seattle needs to have a real debate before spending billions on elevated transit.

WANTED: an intelligent group of people willing to oppose the monorail.

I, like most Seattle voters, generally have warm and fuzzy feelings about the monorail. I feel like George Jetson as I climb aboard and whiz from one theme park (Seattle Center) to another (downtown's glitzy shop-o-rama). My preschool-age sons and I call out in unison, "Monorail! Monorail!" when we see it come roaring overhead. Although I'm not a transportation wonk, my gut instinct is that if you want to build a rail system in the Seattle area, you should avoid tunnels and be grade separated—the monorail does both. In other words, I'm drunk on a little knowledge and a lot of affection.

This will make me an easy mark in November when the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) asks me to tax myself and fund a $1billion to $2 billion, 14-mile monorail line from Ballard to West Seattle.

Last week, Tom Weeks, a former City Council member, close friend of Mayor Greg Nickels, and current head of the ETC board, formed a political action committee called Monorail NOW! It looks like the first step in building a political organization that will run this fall's monorail campaign. Weeks hedges, saying, "It's possible that it might be."

Another officer of this new group, Peter Sherwin—the monorail madman who successfully spearheaded Initiative 53, which funded the ETC—sketches out a scenario in which Monorail NOW! will run a big-money, establishment campaign this fall. "It's going to take in the neighborhood of $500,000 to do a big-money campaign," says Sherwin. At the same time, Sherwin's own group, Rise Above It All, will run a grassroots "people's campaign" that will focus on door-to-door precinct organizing. The combination of the two efforts represents a veritable campaign juggernaut.

There is no organized opposition to the monorail. This is a very dangerous situation.

In recent years, Seattleites have agreed to tax themselves hundreds of millions of dollars to build new parks, libraries, community centers, and performance halls. Each time, faced with ballot measures asking for around $200 million apiece, there was no well-informed, credible opposition. Instead, usually a couple of old guys—grumpy retired used-car salesman Fred Bucke and cheerful retired City Light employee Bob Hegamin—spoke out against increased taxation on principle. They are opposed by slick, well- funded campaigns led by local politicians, high-paid consultants, and gabby experts who provide reams of information printed in glorious Technicolor on shiny paper. No contest.

I fear the monorail election will be more of the same.

While the outcome of all the previous levies may strike you as benign, what about Sound Transit? Voters in three counties approved a complicated, expensive light-rail plan back in 1996. Since then, there's been nothing but trouble with cost overruns, route changes, and technical problems ad nauseam. Ground still hasn't been broken, and costs—direct or indirect—keep rising while the benefits are fiercely debated.

The time to scrutinize the monorail is now. If we blithely move forward, we may find ourselves with two huge rail projects that have spun out of control.

Who is likely to step up to the task?

The intellectual ammunition will come from People for Modern Transit, a collection of light-rail lovers who are also transit wonks. The group's president, Richard Borkowski, says, "We intend to educate people about the concerns we have."

Oddly enough, some of the Sane Transit folks—the transportation wonks who hate light rail—may also do important critical analysis. Many of their concerns about a fixed-rail, high-capacity transit system being a cost-effective transportation solution in our sprawling metropolis where everybody is going in different directions all the time apply equally to monorail as they do to light rail.

The money to fund an opposition campaign could come from site-based groups that don't want the monorail on their street—like the Belltown condo owners on Second Avenue—or from interest groups opposed to an increase in property taxes (landlords), rental car fees (the tourism industry), or vehicle taxes (car dealers).

Now we just need someone to pull the whole thing together.

What's Tim Eyman doing in his spare time?

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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