The Monorail Wars: Dick Falkenbury’s new book Rise Above It All

The Seattle Monorail project: laid to rest by the Seattle process

Dick Falkenbury’s Rise Above It All is a book like no other on Seattle politics. It is a painfully raw ode to the rise and fall of the Monorail Movement; one that almost permanently altered our physical and political landscape.

The book can be read on two levels: a quirky and hilarious catalogue of Seattle politicians and civic leaders, skewering the mega projects they promoted; and, a thoughtful and self-admittedly biased analysis of how the Monorail Project developed and failed, with blame squarely placed on the shoulders of those, including Falkenbury, responsible for its success.

A number of books have covered Seattle politics, but none slices and dices politicians and activists alike to such a degree—not because of their political leanings so much as their character flaws. A popular US senator is called stupid, yours truly is compared to Nixon, a prominent monorail supporter is described as “a dissipated leprechaun without charm.” But the descriptions are keenly funny if not true. Someone who intends to run for public office or apply for a city government job would not write this book. 

Falkenbury does not conform to Seattle’s culture of niceness; he is not nice. Considerate, yes, to the elderly and children. However he is prone to creating waves of anxiety in the halls of power as he heaves around his 280-pound frame, bellowing out his observations. When then City Council President Sue Donaldson appoints Falkenbury to the Monorail Board, she advises him “not to throw chairs out the window.”

A transportation iconoclast

Often it takes someone who sees things differently and who is willing to speak out to break the mold of conformity and stamp out a new direction. Falkenbury did that when he single-handedly launched the effort to build the nation’s first and only monorail transportation system. However, even though Falkenbury dared to buck the norms, he was also a loner, like many nonconformists tend to be. Refusing to involve the many he would've needed to be successful he admits, “I was not good at asking people for help. I thought I could do it all myself.”

No citizens reviewed or studied a proposal to build his monorail system. Falkenbury was proud that the word “study” did not appear in the first initiative approved by the voters. It simply demanded that one be built, providing the public with a detailed route, a funding mechanism and a governance structure.  The billion-dollar proposal sprung directly from the head of a taxi cab driver, as the media loved to note. Although grandiose in his aspirations, Falkenbury acknowledges that he was “financially, a pathetic failure. I had never held a real job.”

He was, however, was an experienced organizer. He had worked as the campaign manager on another citizen-led initiative to stop the widening of the I-90 Highway Bridge across Lake Washington. In his first failed monorail initiative attempt, he found he could collect many signatures simply by setting up unstaffed card tables with blank initiatives. With the help of Grant Cogswell and a few others, the second effort to get the initiative on the ballot succeeded in 1997.

I should note that Falkenbury, true to form, self-published his book and seems to have eschewed both editing and fact-finding assistance. One obvious error is that he repeatedly uses 1996 rather than 1997 as the election date for the first successful Monorail initiative. His spelling is off at times, including a misspelling of my first name, Nick. Whole paragraphs are almost duplicated, and his timeline is fragmented if not confusing. In a state recently noted in a national survey for having residents least likely to use obscene language, Falkenbury stands out as a fount of profanity. This book will not be distributed in public schools.

"What were they smoking?"

Despite these editorial shortcomings, Falkenbury captures the reader's attention with his deft humor and boastful recounting of an improbable movement that teetered between complete folly and daring new vision. After all, his initiative campaign was entirely run by volunteers who managed to gather the necessary 18,000 certified signatures to get it on the ballot. It passed with a 53 percent approval vote, despite supporters spending less than $3,000 on their pro-monorail campaign. Mayor Paul Schell asked me, in an off-the-cuff remark the day after the public voted, “What were they smoking?”

The Monorail Board floundered for more than two years before the city council voted 8 to 1 (with one dissent) to pull the plug on the effort. But the idea of a citywide monorail did not die. Two other citizen activists, Peter Sherwin and Cleve Stockmeyer, stepped up to lead another effort to ask voters if the city should spend $250,000 to study and submit another proposal to the voters. They gathered the signatures and the second monorail initiative passed, approving the study that launched a third initiative brought before the voters. It too passed, but this time by less than a thousand votes.

Opposition to the monorail never subsided and almost seemed to grow more intransigent as it became apparent how the monorail would alter our physical landscape by running forty-foot-high rails through downtown and across Ballard and West Seattle. Falkenbury does not cover the opposition in any detail. Instead he offers a gallery of narrow-minded politicians who felt that monorail’s success would threaten Sound Transit’s growth, self-interested unions who wanted jobs for their members and unenlightened engineers who weighed down the monorail project with unnecessary environmental reviews and construction techniques. The reader is led to believe that Falkenbury is the only one to see these trends.

Criticism grew so fierce that a fourth initiative was placed on the ballot to end the project. Yet still the public voted to continue with the monorail. Only after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer headlined that the final bill was to be $11 billion dollars for the 14-mile line — including the cost to finance bonds — and not the promised $1.3 billion did the public finally reject the project in a fifth and final vote. 

Throughout this tale, Falkenbury touches on a number of Seattle mega-projects, both transit and non-transit ones. He likens the monorail effort to the Save the Pike Place Market effort, when the voters rejected the advice of political, business and media leaders and voted with their hearts to save their market. In a sense Falkenbury has a point, four public votes of support for a monorail project, largely rejected by the establishment, tugged at our hearts. It had an emotional appeal unlike another mega-project that claimed to provide public benefit. That was the South Lake Union Commons Park, which failed in two successive elections.

One repeated observation that Falkenbury does resonate with me and begs to be considered in transit projects discussions: “Transportation is about the aberration not the average,” he writes. “Traffic moves only as quickly as the slowest vehicle in front of you.”

Falkenbury claims the growth of rail lines in city streets fails to recognize this principle. He argues that streetcars average less than 14 miles an hour and have a horrible record of crashing into pedestrians and vehicles. I don’t know if this is a reliable assertion, but it seems self evident that traffic speed in a confined lane, like a streetcar would be, is set by the slowest vehicle .

The allure of congestion-free travel, whether it be above, below, or beside our multiple use streets, is an attractive notion to everyone. The challenge is finding the space for a separate right-of-way and the money to acquire it; a massive infrastructure expense that few communities can afford.

Ultimately, if our cities are to provide reliable mass transit the only financial source adequate to the task is the federal government. Falkenbury’s colorful tale ignores that cities must have non-partisan federal support for funding viable public transportation modes. Otherwise, someone's dream of a more perfect transportation system might grab the public’s imagination once again, and we’ll be off chasing another rainbow.

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