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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