End of the line

THE ELEVATED Transportation Company (ETC), the group set up to bring a monorail plan to voters, has known for months that a new monorail could mean the end of the line for the existing system. Now fans of the 1962 monorail are catching on, and they’re talking about doing something to save the historic system.

For 40 years, the clunky, beloved Fifth Avenue monorail has moved tourists and commuters—2.5 million of them a year—along a 1.3-mile route between downtown and Seattle Center. Since it was built for the World’s Fair in 1962, the monorail has earned a steady profit as skyscrapers, condos, and a hulking music museum have sprung up (sometimes literally) around it. But the new plan to build a 14-mile monorail from West Seattle to Ballard could force the middle-aged monorail to step aside for a hipper, younger sibling. That’s because the preferred monorail route chosen Monday night by the ETC’s board would plow through the path of the current monorail, forcing its demolition. The monorail’s Westlake station, which links to the Metro bus tunnel and brings millions of people into Westlake Mall every year, would also be shut down under the ETC’s current plan.

The easiest way to “save” the old monorail—whether it’s worth saving as a working system is still very much an open question—is to grant it historic status, a designation that would make it difficult (though not impossible) to tear it down. According to Beth Chave of the city’s historic preservation office, the monorail meets at least one of the criteria for local landmark designation: It’s more than 25 years old. It’s also associated with a major historic event, a hurdle few other landmarks can jump. That’s two out of six; according to Chave, “It doesn’t matter whether a property meets one or six—they’re treated the same.” Seattle historian Walt Crowley, an expert on the monorail, says he “can certainly see an argument—historically, aesthetically, and otherwise—for maintaining the existing shuttle.”

Applying for historic status requires a bit of work, but it’s nothing a few dedicated monorail fanatics couldn’t handle. An applicant would have to put together a nomination packet (including a description of the structure, statement of significance, and information about the builder) and present it to the city’s historic preservation officer. From there, the nomination would go to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Board and, if it’s successful there, on to the City Council for approval. The whole process, once a nomination is in, takes between two and three months.

What would historic designation mean? For one thing, according to consultant Terry McCann, whose firm worked on the ETC’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, it means demolishing the monorail would become “difficult and probably impossible.” That would be good news to monorail acolytes like Ed Brighton, who calls the current monorail “historically unique and irreplaceable.” Brighton would like to see the monorail preserved and protected, preferably by a historic designation.

But others note that historic status preserves only the structure and not its use; a “preserved” monorail could be little more than a museum, no longer serving a functional purpose.

ETC board member Dick Falkenbury says he “doesn’t really care” about saving the monorail for “nostalgic” purposes. “If you saved every Civil War battlefield, you couldn’t build anything,” Falkenbury says. And “saving” the monorail, while admirable, might not be worth the sacrifice, Crowley adds. “I would be very unhappy, as a Seattle citizen, to see a preservation campaign for the existing monorail become an obstruction to the expansion of the system, which has now been endorsed twice by the electorate,” Crowley says.

While the debate over preservation gets under way, the ETC has been keeping itself busy. Besides a downtown route that would run through Belltown on Fifth, turning onto Second at Stewart, it produced cost estimates, a financing plan, and a governance structure this week. Under the current, still-preliminary plan, the monorail would cost $1.255 billion and be paid for by a 1.4 percent motor vehicle excise tax. Monorail operation and construction would be overseen by a nine-member board, with five members appointed by the mayor and four by the City Council.

Erica C. Barnett