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Train Wreck: Can 'Seattle Process' learn from the Monorail?

Commentary: Dick Falkenbury's Monorail memoir is as much an indictment of Seattle's planning doldrums as a look back at the failed transit project he pushed.

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

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

Dick Falkenbury's new self-published memoir about the Seattle Monorail Project, "Rise Above it All," has already been reviewed by Crosscut. Falkenbury, who conceived and campaigned for an expansion of city-wide monorail in the 1990s and early 00s, saw his populist dream come to a crashing halt in 2005. It was then that Seattle voters — who had given the project previous approval at the polls four times — ended the dream with a final, solid rejection in alarm over its $11 billion price tag.

Falkenbury's book is a mess; a bit like being stuck in a cab with one of those bloviating drivers who tells his tales with such broad brushes that facts don't get in the way. (And Falkenbury, famously, was a Seattle cabbie.) There is a lot wrong in this book, but I will skip the nit-picking. At least beyond saying that "John Carlson" was not the architect of the Space Needle and didn't get the idea in Frankfurt. Nor did Joe Gandy — who was not "a short, dumpy man with a big chest and a mustache" — conceive the world's fair in 1960. He was, in fact, tall, dignified and clean-shaven. Mangled history like this gives the book, at times, a hallucinatory feel.

In "nice" Seattle though, it's frankly fun to read a book by someone who has a point to make and doesn't seem to care much about taking prisoners. Many targets of his nastiest assessments aren't the monorail's enemies as much as Falkenbury's ostensible allies. His portraits of monorail boosters like Joel Horn, Tom Weeks and Peter Sherwin are unflattering at best. And he is critical of himself too, singling out his impolitic failings as a self-diagnosed megalomaniac.

But what I find most interesting is the overall critique Falkenbury makes about Seattle process; a topic that everyone, whether they remember the monorail crusade or not, talks about. Why can't Seattle get things done? What is the barrier to innovation? Is consensus killing us? Why does every proposal lumber toward the finish line carrying more baggage than it started with?

Falkenbury puts the Monorail fail forward as an example of what's wrong with how we do things. "The Seattle Monorail Project," he proclaims, "was killed by leadership who could not let go of the traditional way of rewarding powerful factions with jobs and contracts. The leadership refused to back away from the past and seize the future. They could not accept a new way of doing things. They lost their mojo."

You'd think Falkenbury would criticize the people he blames for conspiring to kill the project, including Sound Transit and its political enablers, Mayor Greg Nickels and the unnamed "big boys" who lurked everywhere, trying to sabotage the 14-mile Monorail starter system. But his wrath is really reserved for Horn, Weeks and others, who took a great idea and larded it too much cost: more complicated engineering than needed, huge staffs, unrealistic engineering standards. Once the Seattle Monorail Project leapt from concept to implementation, it got heavier and heavier until, finally, collapsing under its own weight.

This was a bitter pill for Falkenbury. The revival of the monorail was a grassroots answer to our transportation problems — a petition campaign with lots of back-of-the-envelope figuring. Once it got momentum though, it was essentially hijacked by the establishment and its wannabes.

Falkenbury argues that it could have been done much cheaper with off-the-shelf technology, more realistic requirements and less time and design spent trying to please every single critic. Horn and Weeks turned what could have been a smart, DIY effort into a miniature version of the Sound Transit behemoth. Instead of the "little transit agency that could," in Falkenbury's story, they became part of the problem.

It's no wonder then that he looks nostalgically back to the Seattle World's Fair era, when ideas were sketched on napkins and took shape with fast, innovative engineering on short time frames. Seattle even managed to turn a profit with the fair — not to mention creating an ongoing legacy with Seattle Center. It was an innovative, high-risk gamble — the biggest ever, said Gandy — and it was a win.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 19, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute repeats the myth that Seattle voters voted for the monorail project four times. The reality was quite different:

Vote #1 (passed 53% to 47% in 1997) was for a 54-mile system that was supposed to connect the four corners of the city and was supposed to be built without any taxpayer subsidy--citizens were told if they voted for this plan free enterprise would build it. Voters approved a fantasy, as the next two years proved--private entrepreneurs did not jump at the opportunity. This certainly cannot be claimed as a vote "for the system." (As the saying goes, "If wishes were horses then beggars would ride"--just substitute the word monorails in the appropriate place.)

Vote #2 (passed 54% to 46% in 2000) was to provide $6 million for a study to to determine if a monorail system might make sense in Seattle. The costs to taxpayers were minimal. Since the vote was merely to approve doing a study, it cannot be claimed as a vote "for the system." There was no "system" at the time this vote took place.

Vote #3 (November 2002) was based on the study, included a plan for several lines, and was to approve the "Green Line," the first part of a citywide system. It passed by just 877 votes. This can be considered as a vote "for the system," although it later became clear that the financing plan on which voters based their decision was misleading.

Vote #4 (November 2004) was a recall election that sought to deny the use of the air space above city streets to the monorail project. This initiative was seen by voters as a gimmick and went down 64% to 36%; This can be considered the second vote "for the system."

Vote #5 (November 2005) was the first time the real financial picture of the monorail system was placed before the voters. Revenue from the MVET (Motor Vehicle Excise Tax) was 30% below what voters were told in 2002 and costs were 10% above what voters had been promised. For the first time, voters had an accurate picture of real costs, financing, etc. The project was defeated 65% to 35%.

Large-scale real world construction projects are complex and expensive. Seismic risks in Seattle are high and require expensive provisions in terms of construction to protect the safety of the public. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process was developed in reaction to the extraordinary negative impacts of the massive highway construction and urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s. This process is intended to allow realistic assessments of impacts and costs.

In contrast to those who suggest that the "Seattle process" killed the Monorail, I suggest the process actually worked as it was supposed to work. The process allowed Seattle voters to see the Monorail Project as a massive investment with significant impacts and few actual benefits that would have saddled the city with extraordinary financing costs. Once the voters learned these truths, they chose not to proceed.

Posted Wed, Jun 19, 9:39 a.m. Inappropriate

First, Jeffrey, thanks for the great background.

Secondly, the monorail was a great idea that was hijacked as stated. However, it deserved to be hijacked just not in the fashion it was. As stated by comment above and in the writing, these projects are massive in size, scope, costs, and possible benefits. This is where and why Government, and Sound Transit should take a back seat to a separate public/private partnership. The inclusion of a for profit partner would have forced the proposed routes to be efficient and reduce risk.

Next, the environmental impact could be minimized by using things like maglev technology or electric cars (however I am not sure the costs; There are always trade offs).

Finally, to discuss costs and the greatness of the process that some people think works, look at the replacement for the monorail. Light rail, is the great an we can tell by the number of users! Oh, wait. Light rail, as written about on crosscut is wasteful. Instead of developing something as part of a massive urban planning policy OR becoming profitable and efficient. Light rail was built in the hopes of people riding it. Sometimes it seems like they built it for the more impoverish folk, thinking they are the people who need transit.

Upstate

Posted Wed, Jun 19, 2:22 p.m. Inappropriate

"Seattle has also become more bureaucratic, controlling and prescriptive, more obsessed with inclusion, stakeholder meetings and regulatory perfection than elegant, fast execution."

I think this judgment only applies to those who are not part of the ruling elite. The large capital private sector is doing just fine obtaining permits and approvals to make money hand over fist. Any obsession with inclusion and process is a sop to those who still operate under the illusion that there is a democratic process in play.

David Brewster hit the nail on the head in his April 30 essay on Seattle governance in the guise of mayoral election coverage: http://crosscut.com/2013/04/30/politics-government/114196/seattles-next-mayor-will-be-mcginn-like/ In essence, Seattle has become ever more firmly under the control of the elites--those who own and manage the most valuable private land and related capital assets. I.e., the "regime".

The regime has little interest in planning that diminishes their ability to profit from use of the commons. As Brewster observes, "Those outside the regime consensus are marginalized."

louploup

Posted Wed, Jun 19, 2:33 p.m. Inappropriate

The Pot and the Kettle?

"In "nice" Seattle though, it's frankly fun to read a book by someone who has a point to make and doesn't seem to care much about taking prisoners."
—that one cracked me up, in fact inspired me to read on with more interest.

"The leadership refused to back away from the past and seize the future."
— a 21st century 520 and the waterfront boulevard/I-5/transit package? True; Rise Above It All? 'Somewhat an hallucinatory feel.'

"It was enormously successful during the fair, getting so many people out of their cars that the city's giant publicly funded Interbay parking lot went bust."
—similarly, so many less visitors that the herd of homeowners with spare rooms decked up for rent never saw a penny.

"One of the appeals of expanding our streetcars is that it revives a bit of the quick-and-dirty solutions of another era."
— that whopper leaves me speechless.

"But Seattle has also become more bureaucratic, controlling and prescriptive, more obsessed with inclusion, stakeholder meetings and regulatory perfection than elegant, fast execution."
—true, but troublemaking put forth as an axiom. In fact, one could write an entire book on the subject of whether we should or should not be trying so hard to 'make the trains run on time' as to so fake consensus.

afreeman

Posted Wed, Jun 19, 3:01 p.m. Inappropriate

In 1900, Seattle had a 25-mile system of urban bicycle paths. Built by both amateurs and contractors, the system was created with a combination of volunteer hours from the passionate Queen City Good Roads Club and financed through city bike licenses.

Today's self-entitled, arrogant, selfish "progressive" bicyclists would never consider such a thing. They refuse to pay for vehicle licenses, and their favorite mayor, Mike McGinn, loves to repeat the lie that it's impossible to execute a bicycle licensing requirement.

As long as today's bicyclists demand everything and pay nothing, they'll be fiercely opposed by a lot of residents.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Jun 19, 7:32 p.m. Inappropriate

As I recall, the Monorail construction cost ceiling was $2 billion, but ballooned to over $5 billion and with interest charges reached $11 billion. Cost overrun however was only a reflection of the Seattle standard for abominably poor engineering which led to objectionably high impacts and pretentiously exaggerated ridership projections. No doubt some planners realized early on that the outcome was avoidable and did nothing to avert failure.

My own efforts to steer planning away from the 14-mile 'double-track' system toward a 6-mile 'single-track' system were met with haughty derision. I estimated the "Circulator Monorail" cost at $500 million (relative to its smaller scale), had low-impact (relative to its simple design), and projected ridership of 20% greater than the Greenline (relative to its all-day ridership demand to serve important downtown destinations with 12 stations). The Greenline was witlessly designed mostly to serve rush hour commuters, not very well.

I don't doubt that the Greenline was designed for rejection.
There is no better way to kill mass transit projects than from the inside.

Wells

Posted Wed, Jun 19, 9:43 p.m. Inappropriate

I always get a laugh when a city with nearly $20 billion in megaprojects underway criticizes itself as a city that can't get anything done. I prefer to think of it as a city with endless ambition.

Posted Thu, Jun 20, 9:10 p.m. Inappropriate

There are very good reasons that very few monorails have ever been built, anywhere. They are much inferior to good old duorail systems, otherwise know as railroads. Switching between tracks is awkward with monorails. Everything is awkward with monorails compared to plain old RRs, technology that has been around since Andrew Jackson was president. Any monorail is of necessity a one-off creature, without a single component available off a shelf anywhere.

Somehow Seattle never shook off the kooky idea that monorails represent the kind of future we used to all long for, with personal jet packs, space colonies and all that. Didn't happen. The commenter above who says that its rejection was an example of the Seattle process working is correct. It took a long time, but people woke up to the fact that a city wide monorail system would be a disaster.

It's just too bad that the proposal wasn't for an elevated railroad, with two rails, proven designs and widely available, standardized equipment. Now that would have been something really useful. Like it or not (I don't,) the rest of the world will someday tire of trading their treasure, and oil, for the dollars we conjure up by the trillions. Maybe soon even. That will be very unpleasant. When it happens, we'll wish we would have prepared better for it. An in-city transit system would have been a good way to do that. But weird Jetsons delusions kept us from doing so.

Posted Fri, Jun 21, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

"The commenter who says its rejection was an example of the Seattle process, is correct." Thank you, but from the perspective of those who have studied and designed monorail systems, they are a perfectly viable mode of mass transit; more limited application than light rail, but viable nonetheless. The Greenline was just poorly engineered. Honolulu considered a monorail system. The benefit there was the same as Seattle - single-track through an urban setting reduces visual and physical impact and cost.

Wells

Posted Fri, Jun 21, 12:28 p.m. Inappropriate

"But Seattle has also become more bureaucratic, controlling and prescriptive, more obsessed with inclusion, stakeholder meetings and regulatory perfection than elegant, fast execution."
Bureaucracy and over-controlling maybe aren't great traits (although it's not a good thing when governments or communities lose control). But if one's going to err on side or the other, wouldn't one want to err more towards than agains inclusion, stakeholder meetings and regulatory perfection? People sure seem to react violently when they feel like there's a shortage of inclusion etc. - that's when we hear about how "the insiders" are getting away with murder. See, e.g., Seattle Commons (it was a misplaced criticism, but widely repeated nonetheless).

nonydog

Posted Fri, Jun 21, 1:10 p.m. Inappropriate

"But Seattle has also become more bureaucratic, controlling and prescriptive, more obsessed with inclusion, stakeholder meetings and regulatory perfection than elegant, fast execution."
Bureaucracy and over-controlling maybe aren't great traits (although it's not a good thing when governments or communities lose control). But if one's going to err on side or the other, wouldn't one want to err more towards than agains inclusion, stakeholder meetings and regulatory perfection? People sure seem to react violently when they feel like there's a shortage of inclusion etc. - that's when we hear about how "the insiders" are getting away with murder. See, e.g., Seattle Commons (it was a misplaced criticism, but widely repeated nonetheless).

nonydog

Posted Sun, Jun 23, 8:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle has become stultifyingly boring. A land where commonsense used to rule, has turned into bureaucratic kumbaya, which to me equals hell.

Posted Tue, Jun 25, 7 p.m. Inappropriate

Amen.

We can name some "big boys" quite easily, Martin Selig and company.

This article just makes me sad.

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

http://www.humantransit.org/2013/06/end-of-the-line-for-sydneys-transit-toy.html

"As urban design, the monorail wasn't that bothersome when it sailed over the open spaces of Darling Harbour, but when it snaked through the narrow streets of the CBD, it was a heavy weight in the air on narrow streets that were already oppressive to the pedestrian....So it's coming down. Last ride is this Sunday."

afreeman

Posted Sat, Jul 20, 2:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Well done - a lot of info that was new to this reader. It's a shame that the monorail extension planning process was botched. As I understand it, the extension would've been done before, cost less, and be less disruptive than, Central Link, even though it would have started later. That's because much of it could've been constructed off-site, with 1 parking space taken up per pillar. Once the monorail was seen as "failed," however, it seems that it will probably never find the light of day. Meanwhile, the "light rail lobby" is humming along. The monorail folks lacked the grip of the political class.

bricsa

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