Seattle monorail Credit: Chuck Wolfe
Mention monorail in Seattle and eyeballs either roll, or light up. For some it's the ultimate transportation flimflam, the technology that has never — and will never — catch on. For others it's a perpetual dream of seamless, smooth mass transit. Either way, the November ballot will carry yet another monorail initiative.
The plan behind Proposition 2, pushed by Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, ultimately, is to build a $2.36 billion monorail line from Ballard to West Seattle. Does that sound vaguely familiar? It should. Seattle voted multiple times between 1997 and 2005 on another proposed monorail system that would have done just that. The Green Line was ultimately rejected by voters in 2005, when the price tag was deemed much too high, and the whole process is widely regarded as a classic Seattle fiasco.
The new proposal, which would create something called the Century Transportation Authority (CenTran), goes beyond mere monorail. There is also the possibility of integrating gondolas, trams and other people-moving technologies to feed the system. In other words, it opens its arms to a plethora of transit "solutions" with Seattle-style inclusiveness.
It's an idea has burbled up in at least three stages over the last century.
The first time, in 1910, a man named William Boyes proposed a monorail line connecting Tacoma and Seattle, and, apparently, a later line between Seattle and Edmonds. He even built a futuristic mock-up of the monorail on the Tacoma tide flats, according to historian Murray Morgan. In the end though, he left behind only some disappointed investors and a fabulous photograph of what the system might have looked like.
After World War II, the monorail returned to Seattle as an idea with legs (or pylons). Texas, Miami, San Francisco and the province of British Columbia were all considering it as a way to augment expanding highway systems and, in BC's case, to open up the interior to development. Even then, problems with mobility (congestion, pollution) were evident and planners warned that cities would need to move large numbers of people around with grade-separated transportation to avoid gridlock and urban decay.
At the same time, Seattle's post-war push to build a civic center in lower Queen Anne (first outlined around the time Boyes' monorail was first proposed in 1910) was finally gaining momentum. A monorail was proposed that would link what is now Seattle Center to downtown and the waterfront. The catalyst for all this would be the world's fair. The Seattle Times laid out a vision of the monorail as a kind of glorified Duck system for tourists and conventioneers, complete with projected "tours of Seattle's waterways for visitors."
Others took the potential of a monorail much more seriously. In early 1957, John Spaeth, Jr., head of Seattle's planning commission, expressed his concerns about how Seattle would accommodate urban growth. He recommended the building of a "backbone" route to move people north and south. That route consisted of a major freeway (today's I-5) with a rail or monorail line running along it. He also wanted to get cars off the streets of downtown in order to create a more pedestrian-friendly city center.
"Motorized transportation is threatening to destroy cities with rivers of congestion," he said. The increase in car ownership was a big part of the problem.
While Spaeth was right about the problems the city would face, Seattle has always been better at pinpointing a problem than implementing solutions. The more civic leaders looked at the future, the more concerned they became with the lack of mass transit components. The monorail project, they decided, would act as a demonstration of urban mass transit's future at the World's Fair. Later, the route from Westlake to the fairgrounds could be expanded — perhaps to Sea-Tac. At the Washington State Pavilion, fairgoers were treated to a vision of Puget Sound's future that showed monorails circling and crossing Puget Sound. In other words, monorail could be the transportation tissue that connected all of Space Age Pugetopolis.
As a mass transit project, the fair monorail — then often called the Alweg after its German-based manufacturer — worked like a charm. It carried some eight million people during the fair, including Elvis. So many fairgoers took transit to Seattle Center that heavy city investments in parking lots, like a massive one at Interbay, were wasted. But after the fair, the project lost momentum to Seattle's ambivalence about mass transit. Even more traditional rail proposals were voted down in the 1960s and '70s — despite a promise that the feds would pick up most of the tab. The Alweg was privatized, proving itself to be merely a tourist attraction and the downtown connector first envisioned in the '50s. And while monorail systems cropped up in some cities in Asia, they became a kind of joke in the U.S. — a Jetson's era relic.
The monorail's third wave, the Green Line plan, emerged in the late 1990s and steamed into the early ‘00s as a populist movement — Seattleites coming up with their own solution to their own problems. Its early and most fervent advocate wasn’t a planner, but a local cab driver. Dick Falkenbury's back-of-the-envelop dream turned into a kind of runaway train that went off the track with the public when its costs ballooned. Falkenbury blames its failure on the project’s enemies, establishment figures like Ron Sims and Greg Nickels, and on the Monorail Authority’s over-reaching leadership, Joel Horn and Tom Weeks.
But the appeal remains. Largely because the technology offers solutions to persistent problems of Seattle geography — that is, the contracted isthmus on which the city is built and the various barriers thrown up in the paths of drivers: a lousy grid, multiple draw bridges and waterways, hills, and other choke points. Seattle finally came around on rail and approved the Sound Transit Link Light Rail system, but construction has been slow and expensive. Monorail holds the potential of being quicker and cheaper to build, and, as the slogan for the Green Line had it, gives people a chance to "rise above it all," speeding us along and giving riders a great view.
In a way, it's like the mass transit version of the Viaduct and, unlike streetcars and buses, it won’t be slowed by all the gridlock on the ground. It's for commuters and tourists alike.
Seattleites pondering their ballots this fall will undoubtedly be spurred to review the reasons for the Green Line's failure. Some view it as a lost opportunity, like the failed Commons proposals for South Lake Union. There, the idea of a "central park" was seen as a way to both attract and mitigate urban growth, but was turned down twice by the voters. The growth happened anyway, and the chance for a major urban park was lost. The Green Line was seen as a populist urban solution that would have done more good than harm.
Others will see it as yet another chance to shoot ourselves in the foot with a massive boondoggle that will not deliver as promised. What's so important about connecting Ballard and West Seattle? Why are we tearing down a Viaduct and redoing the central waterfront only to put a new raised monorail down the middle? Don't we have enough expensive projects going — the Highway 520 widening and a new bridge, the downtown tunnel with its Bertha woes, streetcar expansion, the Mercer fix, Link Light rail expansion, etc? When we can't even get the bus or ferry service we need, is a new monorail really a solution to anything, or just more flailing?
In Seattle, monorail is an idea that just doesn't go away. It's a something in the toolbox, or toy box, that we pull out from time to time to see how the mood strikes us. One reason it remains compelling: The problems it purports to solve haven't gone away. And, if you've been stuck in traffic lately, it doesn't seem like they will anytime soon.