City officials keep pushing the monorail off the track and voters keep dragging it back on.
After weeks of drama, the monorail is headed back to the ballot. On Monday the Seattle City Council unanimously voted to place Initiative 53 on November’s general election ballot. Under the terms of the initiative, the city would spend $6 million over the next two years to create a plan for an expanded monorail system, which would then be resubmitted to voters for yet another public referendum.
Having won once at the polls in 1997, monorail supporters are ready to pick up the fight, says initiative sponsor Peter Sherwin. After the council vote, he and other supporters displayed signs with the slogan “Re-Elect the Monorail.”
Don’t bet against them. Despite city officials’ attempts to quietly bury the monorail effort earlier this year, the proposal’s uncanny public popularity has only grown. In February, Mayor Paul Schell and Seattle City Council transportation czar Richard McIver blocked a $50,000 Sound Transit grant that would have provided more funding for the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC)—the body set up by the victorious 1997 Monorail Initiative to coordinate construction of a new elevated transit system. In late July, the City Council significantly amended the Monorail Initiative, stripping the ETC of its public development authority status and lumping its study efforts in with regular city transportation planning.
But the voters were watching. By mid-August, Sherwin’s Rise Above It All organization had hatched a plan to save the monorail and gathered and submitted 22,000 signatures to elections regulators to back it up. “I’m not sure what other issue in this city would be able to mobilize people like that,” says council member Judy Nicastro. The monorail boosters kept the battle going on other fronts as well. They continued their petition drive even as elections regulators raised concerns about invalid signatures. They also went to court to force the City Council to address Initiative 53 in time to make this November’s ballot.
City Council members had several options for dealing with the initiative. The quickest would have been to simply vote it into law, but a proposal to do so by City Council member Heidi Wills didn’t garner the necessary votes. The council could also have done nothing, which would have put off the vote until next year. McIver still wants to place an alternative proposal on the ballot with Initiative 53, although the council would have to act quickly to make the November ballot deadline.
Politically, choosing a ballot spot for Initiative 53 couldn’t have been a favorite task for council members. Some fear voters might be turned off by a crowded ballot: The city will ask for $198 million in new taxes for parks in November and King County is also seeking $100 million from the voters to bail out Metro’s buses. However, if the council chose to let the vote slide until next year, it might coincide with city elections—and politicians seeking reelection never want to share the ballot with a controversial issue.
Sherwin isn’t worried about what else will be on the ballot—the voters are smarter than the politicians think, he says. “I think the voters can discern between parks and monorails and all the other issues.”