Miles to go

Should Seattle give the monorail a chance?

Seattle, 2020

Scenario one:

A 14-mile monorail system whisks thousands of commuters daily from Ballard to downtown and points beyond. The wildly popular monorail rakes in millions of dollars annually without a public subsidy. The most common commuter complaint? The monorail is so fast, commuters don’t have time to finish reading the comics.

Scenario two:

After a hastily written monorail scheme tanked in 2002, transportation planners turned their attention to building roads, but the cars kept coming. I-5 and 405 are now 10 lanes in each direction, but the average commute from

Lake City to downtown takes more than two hours. Road rage is the leading cause of fatal accidents in the I-5 corridor.

Which scenario will be closer to the truth? Is monorail the answer to Seattle’s transit nightmares, or will its proponents’ vision end up on the growing pile of failed transit solutions? Will the Elevated Transit Company (ETC), the quasi-public agency set up last year to bring a monorail plan to voters, become a mirror of Sound Transit, the agency nobody wants to emulate? Or can the two systems work together, merging into a seamless regional transportation network?

Most of the monorail debate has consisted of such rhetorical questions. But a few things are certain. Monorail supporters have only nine months to get a plan— including costs, technology, routes, and financing options—to Seattle voters. Financing the monorail will be a political nightmare, thanks to the state’s budget crunch. And neighborhood politics, so far mercifully absent from the monorail debate, will become a factor.

The bottom line is simple: If monorail backers don’t get a plan to voters this November, the monorail as most people know it simply won’t happen. It’s going to be a tough nine months.

Nine Months to Liftoff

Monorail boosters have less than a year to do what it took Sound Transit years to accomplish, and staying on track is by no means guaranteed. Neighborhood groups have started popping up with increasing frequency at the ETC’s public hearings. Any number of things—a lawsuit by a disgruntled homeowner, a court challenge to the monorail’s Environmental Impact Statement—could derail the process.

The most likely candidate to issue such a challenge would be the Belltown Community Council (BCC). BCC representative Rebecca Ballough says the group opposes a proposed route along Second Avenue because it would “disrupt the flow of traffic on the only remaining high-capacity route from Belltown to downtown” and cast a shadow over hundreds of homes and businesses. While the ETC has taken every opportunity to hype the incredible views that will be available to riders on the elevated trains, Ballough contends, it has ignored the view at street level. “Will anyone want to dine at the sidewalk cafes with a monorail rumbling overhead and the tracks casting a shadow over the seating areas? Will [pedestrians] avoid walking down Second Avenue?”

Others point out that Belltown has managed to grow and thrive in the shadow of the existing monorail. Proponents of a Second Avenue route also note that the alternative, running the monorail down Fifth Avenue, could require the demolition of the Westlake-to-Seattle-Center monorail if, as is likely, the two systems aren’t compatible.

Queen Anne and the Seattle Center have their own issues with the routing. Both the Queen Anne Community Council (QACC) and the Center would like to see the monorail run along the south side of the Center, not north on Mercer (a route QACC transportation chair John Coney says would impact twice as many properties) or through the Center itself. A route that would have cut “through the heart of the Center,” according to Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson, was ditched at a public hearing after several Seattle Center representatives voiced their opposition. The hastily assembled protest, though effective, demonstrated the difficulty of allowing public input on a truncated timeline: Anderson says Seattle Center “didn’t get a chance to be involved” in the route planning process early enough to keep the disputed route off the ETC’s map. “I’m sorry that we became a bit of a thorn for them, because that wasn’t our intention, but it came up late in the process.”

Competitors or Complementary

While Sound Transit, that elephant in the ETC’s living room, has taken pains to insist that monorail and light rail aren’t competitors, the agency must be acutely aware that in many voters’ minds the monorail election is also a referendum on light rail—both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because the monorail proposal could possibly run alongside Tim Eyman’s Initiative 776, which, if passed, would strip Sound Transit of 20 percent of its funding and potentially cripple its light-rail system. And metaphorically, because—hard as the ETC has tried to dissuade them—voters will inevitably see the election as a choice: Are you happy with the idea of light rail, or would you like to try something new?

Because Sound Transit has monopoly power over transit systems in its three-county jurisdiction (King, Pierce, and Snohomish), it has de facto veto power over monorail or any other “competing” system. Just what sort of system would be competitive is a matter of some debate; while monorail backers put their starter route on the west side of the city to avoid competing with light rail to the east, the two groups would be grabbing from the same pot of state and federal dollars. Although Sound Transit has not openly opposed the monorail so far, spokesperson Lee Somerstein says, “I wouldn’t say anybody’s doing anything” to hasten its approval.

Some monorail proponents insist that the systems will work better together than either would separately. “People love to set up that conflict [between light rail and monorail], but it’s going to take more than a light-rail line east of I-5 or a monorail line west of I-5 to serve people; it’s going to take an entire system,” ETC director Harold Robertson says. “Monorail can help make the most of light rail, and light rail can help make the most of monorail.” State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who’s sponsoring a monorail-funding bill, says setting up such debates can be counterproductive. “I support light rail and HOV lane expansion and commuter rail and ferries,” she says.

Under the surface, however, tension has roiled ever since people started to realize that light rail and monorail might be mutually exclusive. “The ETC is saying they’re working with Sound Transit, but think about it: How much more money does Sound Transit need [to complete its line]?” says Peter Sherwin, author of the 2000 initiative that funded the ETC. “Don’t you think [the ETC is] going after their money already?” For example, if the ETC convinces voters to pass a $50 car tax and Sound Transit comes back a year later to ask for more money to complete its line to the University District, “it’s going to be a consideration that you’re already spending that $50,” Sherwin says.

It’s that kind of talk that makes some light-rail proponents nervous, and their anti-monorail rhetoric has inflated noticeably as monorail has evolved from a futuristic fantasy into a potentially viable alternative. “We’re not sold on the ETC’s implementation of the monorail,” says Richard Borkowski, director of pro-light-rail group People for Modern Transit. “I don’t think there’s room for both at this time.” Besides, Borkowski adds, light rail has already been approved; “monorail was not part of that vote, and it doesn’t make sense” to introduce it into the mix now, he says.

But backers say monorail systems offer tangible advantages over light rail. Because it would be above street level, the monorail would take out fewer lanes of traffic and could be safer. Since monorail systems can be automated, the system won’t have to have a driver—although the existing monorail does. And, although ridership estimates won’t be available until the ETC chooses a technology (currently, it’s narrowing in on several large- and medium-size conventional monorails, similar to the existing monorail), preliminary guesses put rider-ship at around 44,000 a day—1,500 more than Sound Transit’s most recent estimate of 42,500 riders for its 14-mile initial segment.

Given all that, Peter Sherwin says, he can’t figure out why the light-rail crowd won’t consider another alternative. “I don’t understand why they like light rail so much,” he says. “If we could build monorail in this city, even if it was at the same cost as light rail, with all the advantages it has, that would be a pretty good indication that monorail was superior.”

Great Expecations

If you listen to its more effusive proponents, you might believe the monorail could be up and moving thousands of commuters in the next couple of months. The Web site for the Monorail Society, an international organization that promotes monorail systems, gushes: “Simply put . . . dig a hole, drop in a pre-built support pylon, truck in the track that was manufactured offsite, lift into place!”

The truth is more complicated. According to engineer Bob Griebenow, whose firm, Berger/Abam, is working with the ETC, monorail construction could block off traffic for months while engineers move utility lines, dig hundreds of holes, pour the foundation, put the columns in place, and secure around 1,400 beams—which would form the base for the monorail track—with massive truck-mounted cranes. Stabilizing the beams, stringing electrical wires, getting the trains on top, and debugging their electronic systems could stretch the timeline further. Still, Griebenow says, building a monorail is faster and less disruptive than building a conventional rail system like Sound Transit’s.

The monorail wouldn’t be invisible; aside from being (arguably) unattractive, monorail pylons could take out businesses or lanes of traffic, depending on whether they’re located in the middle of the street (as they could be along 15th in Ballard) or off to the side (as they could be downtown).

Another potential hurdle is that monorail technology, although not exactly untested, isn’t common in U.S. cities; most of the world’s monorails are clustered in Europe and Japan, or in theme parks like Disney World. “There is no city in the world that has a monorail network as the backbone of [its] transportation system,” light-rail supporter Borkowski says. Part of the reason monorail is not more commonplace, critics claim, is that monorail switching systems—those movable pieces of track that allow railroad trains to move quickly and safely from one track to another—are slower and less versatile than conventional rail’s. Moreover, “the switching is much more expensive,” says Dick Burkhart, a light-rail activist who lives in the Rainier Valley. “You can build them, but they’re more awkward, they take more room—it just costs more.” Griebenow concedes that monorail switches cost more money than those for conventional rail but denies that the system is slower or more complicated. “[Critics] just figure it’s harder to move a larger piece of metal than it is to move a small one, but that’s not really true”; in fact, it takes only about 15 seconds to move a piece of track from one monorail line to another, Griebenow says.

Millions to Go

After monorail backers choose a technology, they’ll have to answer the toughest question: How much will the system cost, and how will we pay for it? Contrary to the optimists’ early predictions, the Ballard-to-West-Seattle monorail won’t be cheap; early estimates from the ETC showed costs ranging from $970 million to $1.7 billion, but critics contend that the smaller number is far too optimistic.

What the monorail ends up costing will depend largely on how long the trains are and how they get across the route’s two water crossings, the Ship Canal in Ballard and the Duwamish Waterway in West Seattle. “[Train length] will have an immense impact on how long the stations need to be and how big physically the stations need to be,” says ETC outreach coordinator Ed Stone. Building new bridges would also add millions to the final tally.

Those unknowns, say critics like Burkhart, should be enough to convince voters to stay the course and stick with light rail, which is over-budget but further along, over an unknown commodity like monorail: the it-may-be-a-turkey-but-it’s-our-turkey argument. “The big problem with monorail is that the supersalesmen are claiming it’s going to cost half of what light rail will cost,” Burkhart says. “Let’s be realistic. Light rail’s going to cost a lot, but monorail’s going to cost a lot, too.” Elsewhere, monorail has cost—depending on whose figures you trust—anywhere from $24 million a mile in Tokyo to nearly $163 million a mile in Las Vegas, although direct comparisons can be difficult because agencies have different methods of measuring per-mile costs.

Either way, Seattle is likely to be on the high end of that scale, thanks to topography and politics. The ETC will have to purchase right-of-way to build the system, lay tracks across two water crossings, and deal with the city’s formidable hills—any of which could add more zeroes to the final figure. Even Sherwin, author of the 2000 ETC initiative and an unabashed “supersalesman,” says he’ll back away from the monorail if the costs go up. “If this thing comes in at $200 million a mile, I’m going to move away from it,” Sherwin says. “Why should I care? It’s not like my dad invented the monorail.”

The Battle in Olympia

Once the ETC figures out how much the monorail will cost, it has to come up with a way to pay for it. That’s where politics enter the picture. The ETC’s favored option, letting Seattleites vote on a motor vehicle, car rental, or parking tax to fund the starter system, requires the permission of the state Legislature, which historically has not been kind to cities that have asked for new taxing authority. And this year, when funding for even essential services like the state library is in dire jeopardy, discretionary items like the monorail could get shoved to the bottom of the heap.

Some say the ETC showed a lack of judgment by not extending its hand to legislators sooner. “In the middle of this transportation crisis in the state, to suddenly show up after three years of debate [over transportation] and say, ‘We want you to give us this authority,’ unless it’s part of a compromise, it’s not going to happen,” says state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who included a provision allowing Seattle voters to tax themselves for monorail in his transportation funding proposal. On the other hand, “the fact that I’ve gotten Eastside Republicans to sign on to monorail as part of this package” in exchange for his support of their road projects “is a huge victory.”

Even initiative king Tim Eyman, no friend to mass transit, has gotten behind a monorail tax—sort of. Although the state tax-revolt leader concedes it would be “kind of weird” to find himself supporting a tax increase, Eyman says that “if Seattle voters want a tax increase for the monorail, hey, knock yourselves out. We’ve always contended that any tax increase that any taxing district wants to support is fine, as long as it goes to the voters.” Eyman’s latest initiative, I-776, would repeal existing motor vehicle excise taxes (MVET), which provide 20 percent of Sound Transit’s funding, and require that any new taxes go to a public vote. A new MVET, then, would be “a good revenue source for monorail” because it would be subject to voter approval, Eyman says.

But convincing the likes of Tim Eyman won’t win the ETC any votes in Olympia; monorail supporters will have to convince the rest of the anti-tax crowd down south that supporting Seattle’s right to tax itself isn’t the same thing as supporting higher taxes. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles is sponsoring stand-alone legislation (the sort that Ed Murray says would be “dead in the water” in the House) with Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, to create a monorail taxing option. (A companion bill was recently introduced in the House.) But despite the odds, Kohl-Welles is optimistic that the monorail warriors will win their battle. “They’ve got a very strong lobby team,” she says.

That much can’t be disputed: The three-man team, hired for $45,000 just as the 60-day legislative session got rolling, will be headed by Jim Kelly, a former aide to Gov. Gary Locke who most recently worked at Vulcan Northwest, Paul Allen’s development firm. Kelly, who left Vulcan to launch Kelly Public Affairs right before the session started, thinks the odds are in the monorail’s favor. “This is something that people throughout the state and from both political parties can get behind,” Kelly says. “The primary message from the House Republican Caucus has been that new taxes should go to a vote of the people,” and that’s what the legislation proposes, he adds. But other monorail proponents are more cautious. “Like all things in Olympia, it’s going to be a struggle to get legislation passed,” Sherwin says. “Nothing’s moved on transportation down there, and there doesn’t seem to be a breakthrough proposal on the table.”

Funding from state and federal sources will be even harder to come by; even Jacobsen, a vocal supporter of the monorail, says paying for it is “going to have to be a local issue,” because the state well is running dry. The ETC can’t go after federal dollars until 2003, when more grants become available. That means that if the Legislature doesn’t approve a local taxing option, the ETC may have nothing more than its $125 million pot of reserved bonding capacity (the use of which would have to be approved by the city), property taxes, and private-sector money to fund its billion-dollar-plus proposal. None of those sources alone will be enough to complete the system; while the ETC does plan to seek some private funding, “this will be a major public investment,” Robertson says.

The City Council, which has to sign off on the plan before it can go to the ballot, can also hinder its progress toward a November ballot. Because the monorail initiative gives the ETC “up to two years” to complete its plans, City Council transportation committee chair Richard Conlin says, “it’s probably still in keeping with the law” to delay the election until 2003. The problem is, the ETC is on track to spend its entire $6 million budget by November 2002; unless the council came through with additional funding—possible, though Conlin says he doesn’t know where it would come from—the ETC would have no budget for an additional year of operations.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a monorail plan pretty much like the one the ETC is laying out now makes it onto a fall ballot. Will the city’s love affair with elevated transit translate into a decision to move forward with monorail come Nov. 5? That depends on what happens with the Legislature, the economy, and Sound Transit, which is supposed to break ground on its light-rail line sometime this coming summer. But it also depends on what monorail boosters do between now and then. Since 1997, when the first monorail initiative (I-43) passed, true believers like Peter Sherwin, I-43 author Dick Falkenbury, and former City Council candidate Grant Cogswell have done everything they could to elevate monorail in the public’s mind. Now it’s up to the new crew of monorail salesmen, like Jim Kelly and Harold Robertson, to close the deal.