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    Mr. Monorail: No there there on new elevated plan

    Guest Opinion: At bottom, Proposition 2 asks us to vote on a promise to create a process to create a plan to build a monorail. Maybe.
    New monorail proposal has some problems.

    New monorail proposal has some problems. Credit: Howard Wright/Flickr

    I like chocolate. But that doesn’t mean I am going to eat Chocolately ExLax any time soon. I may have written the original 1996 monorail initiative but I cannot support Elizabeth Campbell’s new Century Transportation Initiative (or CenTran). It will be on the ballot (as Proposition 2) in November. It should be beaten like a Chinese gong. 

    This new initiative is the wet dream of anyone fond of the Seattle Process. In fact, it is nothing but process. It is a plan, to plan, for a plan. It will plan to build a monorail, but it will not actually build a monorail. After all is said and done, there is only the promise that there will be process to plan to build a monorail. A plan for the process to plan. 

    Campbell’s website (Centran.org) shows a route that starts in Ballard and runs along the waterfront and on to West Seattle. It includes video of a Scomi monorail train. The proposed route has monorail trains crossing the Ship Canal near the Ballard Bridge and at the same height. The route, choice of train and Ship Canal crossing all present huge problems:

    The proposed route serves the cruise ship terminal and the Washington State ferry dock; neither cruise ship tourists nor ferry commuters will pay any taxes towards the construction of the system. The Scomi trains shown on the website are too small to haul the number of passengers needed to make a dent in demand. The low Ship Canal crossing means that trains will have to wait whenever the Ballard Bridge opens to boat traffic.

    But none of these shortcomings matters in the end, because in Campbell’s governance proposal the monorail planners will not be held to account for any of them. They are not promises or guarantees but mere “starting points.” The new monorail board is free to ignore any or all of them. Renderings of the trains, the route and other specifics on the CenTran website are meaningless. The board can plan whatever it wants and then seek approval from the voters.  

    Campbell’s plan is to create a process so sure, so pure, so chock-full of process that it cannot be hijacked or subverted.  Unless, of course, you simply ignore her calls for transparency. 

    For example, there is nothing to stop bad actors from telling everyone that they are more transparent than Lady Godiva and then, hiding everything they do by declaring every piece of paper, every step they take and every decision they make a “draft.” Under the state’s public records act, “Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, and intra-agency memorandums in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated or recommended are exempt [from public disclosure]” with the exception of any record that is “publicly cited by an agency in connection with any agency action.”

    In other words, unless you talk or write or cite them publicly, draft documents could be effectively classified. Since there are no penalties for willfully ignoring cries for transparency, all an agency has to do is stamp everything “draft” and it can do pretty much whatever it likes.

    Campbell’s solution is to assemble an unbeatable board. One member must be an advocate for social justice; another must be a member of a Native American tribe. This may be laudable, but does it assure that no executive director can pull the wool over these board members’ eyes? Are social justice advocates and Native Americans somehow immune to wool-over-eyes-pulling?

    The entire problem here is that CenTran is nothing but another scheme to plan, process and plan. There is no guarantee, no matter how convoluted and Byzantine the make-up of the Board, that the process cannot be hijacked. Other than good intentions, there is no guarantee we wouldn’t be headed down the same single track right into Transportation Hell.

    Dick Falkenbury, a Seattle native, was the principal author of the monorail initiative. He has been a professional driver off-and-on for 25 years. He currently lives in the Wedgewood neighborhood. He has no tattoos or piercings, but he does have an array of scars that spell out a well-known obscenity in Serbo-Croatian.

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    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 7:24 a.m. Inappropriate

    Be careful Dick. These are some of the same objections I voiced back in 2000 and beyond and I got labeled as 'anti-transit' amongst the transit-loving progressive community. I agree with all of your objections.

    The route, choice of train and Ship Canal crossing all present huge problems:
    - It's only a plan for the process to plan
    - The Scomi trains are too small
    - The low Ship Canal crossing means that trains will have to wait for boat traffic
    - The governance proposal will not be held to account for any of them
    - Renderings of the trains, the route, etc are meaningless
    - All decisions can be hidden by declaring every piece of paper a “draft”

    In summary, this resurrects the Joel Horn monorail agency that just got voted out of existence a few years ago. It's like Groundhog Day in Seattle.

    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

    Sounds like another Sound Transit like board. I assume that "crossrip" will weigh in on this. It's too bad as the region described needs transit badly and the death of this initative will put a damper on any plan going forward in the near future. But that's the "Seattle Process" at work, put a losing vote in front of the voters and then decry that nothing can be done because it's the voters will....


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

    GaryP. Yes, you're right. Crossrip will no doubt weigh in again like a broken record about Sound Transit, unelected boards, misconduct... blah, blah, blah. Like I said. It's always like Ground Hog day in Seattle. The same people complaining about the same problems. But not offering any solutions.

    Does Crossrip want a directly elected board like the Seattle School Board, where board members work for no pay? Plus, they seem to be ineffective too.

    How about the directly elected Seattle City Council? Oh wait, Crossrip hates them as well.

    Like I said. Groundhog Day. Lots of complainers. No doers.

    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 1:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    The school board is not just "ineffective" they are worse as far as the Math corriculum is concerned by approving math text's that are terrible. Before a huge campaign by a UW professor and a lot of angry parents got it changed.


    So probably no worse than the Sound Transit board and their terrible bond agreements with Goldman Sachs. Thing is you don't notice this terrible deal because you don't have an accurate accouting of where your ST Tax money is being spent/held. That extra revenue could have been put to use building more miles of LINK rail instead of being held in reserve for an investment bank.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 4:19 p.m. Inappropriate

    "So probably no worse than the Sound Transit board and their terrible bond agreements with Goldman Sachs."

    The contracts with B of A aren't any better. The 2012 refinancing of some of the series-2005 bonds was abusive to individuals and families here as well. B of A headed that creditor syndicate, and those bond terms also require decades of excessive regressive tax impositions by Sound Transit.

    Let's see if you know your stuff, and if you are willing to shed light on one of Sound Transit's dark secrets. Estimate how much tax revenue will be confiscated because of the bond sale contracts.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'm not too familiar with it but wanted to share if others could help clarify:
    I wonder if it's at all possible (if at all) for the [train] manufacturer/contractor to underwrite portion(s) of the [...] cost. Sort of a modern day "1961 Alweg contract" but instead of Alweg, it could be Scomi, or Hitachi Rail, or some other potential group.

    Just a thought.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 1:31 p.m. Inappropriate

    Good question. It certainly is possible. In fact, having a rolling stock manufacturer as one of the partners in a rail construction project can be the best way to proceed.

    A rolling stock maker helped build out and operate the very successful Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system. What generally is regarded as the best practices for project financing were employed there:


    The DBOM contractor for that system is 21st Century Rail Corporation, a partnership of Raytheon Infrastructure Services, the US arm of Japanese rolling stock builder Kinki Sharyo, and Itochu Rail Car Inc. FYI, Kinki Sharyo makes some of Sound Transit's rolling stock.

    Obviously the government heads here turn up their noses at success stories like that. They fixate on their unique financing technique. It involves decades of heavy regressive tax impositions. Sound Transit does this; it is implementing a financing plan featuring scores of billions of dollars of sales tax revenue confiscations. That abusive financing plan will last at least four more decades. All that tax will be confiscated as security for the mountains of long term bonds it wants to sell.

    Nobody finances rail projects the way it's done here, because nowhere else do the government heads embrace financing techniques designed to impose excessive regressive tax impacts on the least well off households.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 4:45 p.m. Inappropriate

    They don't "embrace" the regressive taxes we use in Washington. The voters have forbidden them from using anything else.

    Cart, horse.


    Posted Sat, Aug 23, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

    Voters have no power to forbid the legislature from imposing taxes, of any type. Why are you playing stupid about the law?


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    The nice thing about the Alweg design is that it's in the public domain. And if you look on www.monorails.org you can see a close copy of it running in Malyasia. http://www.monorails.org/tMspages/Kuala.html

    We could easily have it fabricated locally as we have all of the machinists we'd need from the aerospace industry in our backyard so to speak. That way we'd keep our tax money in the region, create jobs etc.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 4:46 p.m. Inappropriate

    Um, er, "aerospace engineers" tried making transit cars once upon a time. The result was the amazingly unreliable Boeing Vertol Light Rail Vehicle. Truly a POS.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 7:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yes, Kim's site is always good to visit.

    Youtube, and other online mediums, have also seen a massive increase in videos & photos of the various new systems (and expansions) globally these past 3 years. I'm particularly fond of Chongqing's system, though, because they're our Sister City in China.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 1:30 p.m. Inappropriate

    DarenD. It's not so much a cost issue as a quality issue. The question that needs to be asked is, "Will it work at any price?"

    A monorail that is partially single-tracked with a low level bridge that must be opened simply KILLS reliability and frequency of service, which is supposed to be a selling point of high capacity transit.

    It's just another example of transportation projects that are designed by people with zero transportation planning experience. For some reason, this seems to draw an audience in Seattle.

    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 1:43 p.m. Inappropriate

    Richard that's ridiculous. The cut is an issue for any system. The alternatives is an extremely high bridge with a ridiculous catwalk for any disabled/wheelchair person. A bridge that opens or a tunnel. ST chose a tunnel and while you can run a Monorail in a tunnel it's extremely expensive to dig it. Better to have intruptions in the route and planned openings of the bridge then the overly high bridge or the expensive tunnel. (buses on those bridges have the same problem and yet I don't see you complaining about their schedules being interupted.)


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 4:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Partially single-tracked" not only limits the minimum headways possible the switches for straddle-beam monorails are incredibly cumbersome, slow things.

    And there's a nasty little secret about them. If a train approaches from the two track end on the beam which is currently not "selected" for travel and the failsafe fails unsafely, the train plunges off the beam. If the beam is mounted on the ground or very short supports, that isn't such a terrible thing.

    But if the turnout is in an elevated section, well, it's a free fall to the ground.

    No, it hasn't happened for decades, but like all things electromechanical, there is the possibility of a failure.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

    Dick! I know you're jaded...I also hate how democracy around here gets in the way of things the democracy around here actually needs.

    But what's the alternative? We need the transit. Ballard needs the transit. Above grade would be the cheapest alternative. Is it just because it's called "monorail" that you hate it so? I agree its a bad word these days. The problem as I see it is that we needed this built 20-30 years ago. We need to start this line and we need to vote the taxes in to start it now.

    My question is this: What would cost less? Above grade monorail or above grade using the current train system and technology we have with light rail? It seems we could ditch a lot of the planning costs and just accelerate light rail roll out.

    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 3:44 p.m. Inappropriate

    The problem as usual isn't the technology of using a Monorail, it's the governance of the board, and the way the project is financed. When you realize the wasted money going into East Coast bankers pockets you wonder why people put up with it.

    Of course the real answer is a state bank from which enties like the Sound Transit, SDOT, WSDOT et.al would borrow money pledging the tax returns as collateral. The interest would be paid to that bank and not bond holders. The competion of a bank vs bonds would help clean up this mess.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 3:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    Oh yeah, there's no room for an 'at grade' system without removing something that already exists, ie, lanes from a road, buildings (which generate tax revenue and give people a reason to go anywhere.) Or elevate or tunnel. Tunnels get everything out of sight but as we can see, are hugely expensive. Elevation is lower cost when the whole system is elevated, (eliminating the need to withstand side impacts from autos/trucks) which makes Monorail less expensive. (It's physics, less mass to lift, fewer support collumns, less concrete to pour etc. etc.)


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 7:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    Sometimes, I wonder if splitting these 2 big commuting routes into Phases 1 & 2 is more practical: West Seattle or Ballard first, followed by the other. Faster completion time to helping reduce some congestion.


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 10:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    GaryP. You're right, the bridge issue is important regardless of technology used. But if you have a bridge that opens and stops the trains, you've just killed the whole system because the trains all circulate in a circle, essentially. It would be a farce to build anything like that.

    The reason I don't complain about that with the buses is that they are running on the roadway and the right of way is already there. But to spend billions of dollars to build a new right of way (monorail or light rail) that is no more reliable than the buses on the roads would be obscene.

    Posted Thu, Aug 28, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    Hey, I'm all for high bridges or a tunnel to cross the waterways but those are hugely expensive. The alternative is the status quo which just sucks. Better to have a short wait at prescribed times like they do for the 520 bridge right now than nothing all the time.

    But hey, if you want to spend your money efficently, add more bicycle facilities to get the ridership up to 10%. The total build out would be far less because you can use a lot of the existing infustructure (roads in neighborhoods.)


    Posted Fri, Aug 22, 10:50 p.m. Inappropriate

    No GaryP. The problem IS THE TECHNOLOGY. The huge monorail switches are big and clunky. The Seattle monorail has none, not that it needs one. But a long, public transit system needs switches. Lots of them. And concrete beams don't make good switches. That's just a fact. It's a limitation of the technology. I don't know why this is so difficult to understand. Do you want a reliable system or not?

    Posted Sat, Aug 23, 12:50 a.m. Inappropriate

    Switches...: http://www.monorails.org/tMspages/switch.html
    I'm not sure if they use some alloy, concrete and/or both but it shouldn't matter anyway since they are reliable to begin with. Number of switches depends on system design & needs. I.e., Osaka has 38 in its 17 miles while Chongqing Line 2 has 9 in its 12 miles; Line 3 might have a little bit more since it is 35 miles long.


    Posted Sat, Aug 23, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    Of COURSE Seattle will do this. It's too stupid to pass up.


    Posted Mon, Aug 25, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    Good logic! Which city council position are you running for?


    Posted Mon, Aug 25, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    Seriously, Dickie?

    The first "ballot" on the Monorail was to allow a for-profit entity to build a monorail at their own cost and run it at a profit. It was a plan blessed with unicorn smiles and rainbow handshakes?

    Pot, kettle. Kettle, pot.

    When the Delusional criticize the Delusional... I just grab my popcorn and sit back for the ensuing HIGHlarity.

    Posted Wed, Aug 27, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thank you, I'm so glad someone said this! As someone who was here in 1997, it shocks me that Falkenbury would have the gall to issue these particular criticisms. Every little problem he points out in this piece applies moreso to his original initiative. Every. Last. Point.


    Posted Mon, Aug 25, 7:46 p.m. Inappropriate

    QueenAnne.. You've got that right. When I stepped forward and said that the monorail wasn't going to make a profit, I was ignored and pressured to shut up. I even met with Joel Horn and had coffee to let him know we had concerns about the profitability claims right from the beginning. Rather than listening, Horn doubled down on that claim and said it would just be so amazing once the system was built and I had no idea what I was talking about. He kept saying that the Seattle monorail would make a profit just like the Las Vegas monorail. Well here's how that turned out.

    Las Vegas Monorail files for bankruptcy protection, Jan 13, 2010

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