Monorail Pentathlon

Once again, voters: Are you sure you want elevated transit?

The monorail is a four-time winner at the ballot box, but this year the champ is on the ropes before a campaign is even under way.

On Tuesday, Nov. 8, Seattle voters will decide the fate of the monorail for the fifth time since 1997, by voting on Seattle Popular Monorail Authority Proposition 1, which would authorize construction of a shorter, 10.6-mile elevated transit line from the Interbay area, through downtown, and to West Seattle. It has been a terrible summer for the monorail. First came the crazy $11 billion financing plan, which was dead on arrival, then opposition from powerful Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and a unanimous vote to nix the project by the Seattle City Council, and, finally, public feuding by the dysfunctional monorail board of directors.

Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder an Oct. 5 poll of 544 likely Seattle voters done by Survey USA for KING-TV found that 58 percent were opposed and 39 percent were in favor of Proposition 1. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.

Yet monorail diehards have formed a new campaign organization, Transit Over Roads, to try to carry the monorail to victory one more time. Transit Over Roads spokesperson and SPMA board member Cleve Stockmeyer believes the poll is underestimating the monorail project’s support. “It’s really an even split,” he says confidently. Stockmeyer says that Seattleites have a strong commitment to transit in general and the monorail in particular. He says that if the monorail is defeated, millions of dollars in taxes now directed to the project will be seized for road construction by the Legislature.

“That’s bullshit,” says state House Transportation Chair Ed Murray, D-Seattle. “Can I put it any simpler? I will be standing in the way of this money being used for roads.” Murray has the power to prevent such a reallocation.

The monorail currently levies a 1.4 percent annual motor vehicle excise tax in Seattle, which raises around $4 million per month. If voters stop the monorail, that money would continue to be collected while the agency pays off debts and wraps up dissolution. After that, the tax would be discontinued, and only an action by the Legislature could resume it.

Even if Transit Over Roads’ claim isn’t true, it makes for a great campaign message. It’s simple and it appeals to the majority of Seattle voters who support, you bet, transit over roads. The monorailers’ challenge is that they probably won’t have a lot of money to get that message out. “Who is going to fund their campaign?” asks Dean Nielsen, state director of Progressive Majority, a liberal electioneering group. “You’ve got to have a funded campaign to counteract all the negative news in the media.”

Transit Over Roads’ co-chair, Peter Sherwin, a veteran of the monorail campaigns of 2002 and 2004, says the pro–Proposition 1 side won’t have anything near the more than $400,000 it raised for last year’s vote. In the past, large contractors interested in building the line contributed to the campaign war chest, including Cascadia, the consortium of construction firms headed by Fluor that is negotiating a contract to build the line. Cascadia spokesperson Jerry Schneider says the group is looking for political support from the mayor and the City Council before spending more money on shaping opinion. “Without that, it’s difficult to commit resources,” he says.

While the pro side has a clever campaign message and few resources to disseminate it, the campaign against the monorail, No on Monorail Proposition 1, might have the opposite problem. The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association have already endorsed the “no” campaign. The opposition’s steering committee includes a corporate attorney, a high-tech executive, a representative of Washington Mutual, and an environmentalist. Between the endorsers and the steering committee, the campaign should be able to raise a bundle of cash. There are no limits on the size of campaign contributions for a ballot measure as long as they are made before Oct. 17. During the last campaign, anti-monorail forces behind Initiative 83 collected $891,830—the majority of it from large downtown business and property owners.

Opponents of Proposition 1 cannot just say, “Kill the monorail!” says Moxie Media’s John Wyble, who ran the pro-monorail campaign in 2002 but is staying out of this one. “What is so important for the “no” side is to present an alternative. Seventy-five percent of the city wants transit. The naysayer thing only gets you so far in the city.”

In 2004, the Initiative 83 campaign to end the monorail project tried to address this with a complicated message about how Seattle needed one seamless transit system. Voters rejected I-83, 64 percent to 34 percent.

This year’s “no” campaign does not have a clear, positive message yet. “We’re trying to develop a message and keep it simple,” says Virginia Gunby, a veteran environmental activist and member of the opposition’s steering committee.

Progressive Majority’s Nielsen says the “no” side doesn’t need to worry. “If you want to kill it, just keep up the drumbeat,” he says. Nielsen believes the “no” campaign can win the election by reminding voters over and over of the mismanagement that has plagued the project and by endlessly repeating the $11 billion figure. The news events of this past summer have already laid the foundation for the project’s defeat. Says Nielsen, “In politics, timing is everything.”