Has Seattle's dream for rail transit run its course?

All the factors that made such a strong case for rail in 1968 are much weaker now. Jim Ellis, the architect of the dream, recalls how the crusade began and why Seattle seemed the perfect city for an extensive rail system.
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Jim Ellis. (Walt Crowley / HistoryLink)

All the factors that made such a strong case for rail in 1968 are much weaker now. Jim Ellis, the architect of the dream, recalls how the crusade began and why Seattle seemed the perfect city for an extensive rail system.

The defeat of Proposition 1 last month, by big margins in all three counties, may have been the last hurrah for a central civic dream of the Seattle region: a modern rail transit system. Is it time to throw in the towel, leaving the area with just a stubbed-off rail line from the University of Washington to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport?

I put the question to Jim Ellis recently, who said, after a pause, that he's "not quite willing" to surrender. Not that he has a formula for how to revive the dream, one he put in motion in the mid-1960s. I asked him to recount how the dream was born and why Seattle, almost alone among major American cities and despite its strong geographic case for rail, seems unable to raise the money and corral the voters to build such a system, even after 40 years of trying.

The civic crusade was hatched in 1965, when nearly all the planets were lined up for success. The 1962 World's Fair had ignited Seattle's pride. Lake Washington had been saved by Ellis's creation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle – Metro. The economy was cooking, fueled by boom years at Boeing. Seattle, fearing suburbanization that was accelerating due to Boeing's plant locations, was anxious about how to prevent its downtown from decaying, as in other cities. Ellis, then a leading municipal bond attorney at the downtown firm of Preston Thorgrimson and Ellis, kicked off the civic crusade in a talk with Seattle Mayor Dorm Braman, whose big goal was transit.

The two sat down with the state's great sugar daddy. Sen. Warren Magnuson. Maggie heard the pitch and then said, as Ellis recalls it, "Mr. Mayor, do your people want it?" The "it" was rail transit. Braman immediately replied, "Yes they do, if the federal government will match 50-50."

The deal was quickly struck, and Maggie proceeded to get a 60 percent federal grant, with the additional sweetener that the federal money would come in a lump sum, up front, so it could be invested and earn interest while being drawn down. That maneuver more than doubled the value of the $900 million federal grant. Ellis recalls Magnuson's ability to get such a grant as "mind boggling." So there it was – if Seattle could pass the bond issue for its share.

Both votes, in 1968 when the economy was strong and 1970 when it was in a Boeing Bust, failed. The high-water mark was the 51 percent approval in 1968, well short of the 60 percent that was needed. It wasn't until 1996 that a scaled-back version was passed, giving us the "starter" system of Sound Transit today. Prop 1 this year would have provided billions to extend the system north, east, and south. The campaign was lame, leading politicians ducking for cover; the Seattle "establishment" kicked in money but only tepid support. The Sisyphus Subway may have finally stalled, though it will probably be put to the voters one more time in 2010.

The Forward Thrust package in 1968 would have given the area a system of amazing scope. It would have been completed in 1985 and fully paid off in 2008. It would have been heavy rail, largely in subways, with two prongs north, two prongs south, and two prongs on the Eastside. Unlike Portland's system, which is largely on the street, this system would have been separated from traffic and much faster. It probably would have done a fair amount toward shaping dense neighborhoods and concentrating urban growth. All this at one quarter the local cost of a completed (much smaller and slower) Sound Transit system.

Ellis made a compelling local case for his plan, arguing that Seattle was unusually well suited for rail transit. The hourglass shape of Seattle meant that without transit to absorb some of the growing traffic, you might need more neighborhood-busting north-south freeways. (Interstate 5 alone sacrificed 15,000 homes in Seattle, Ellis recalls.) Lake Washington was another severe constraint on highway corridors. Unlike a city such as Portland, Seattle was adding some heavy-traffic magnets such as a convention center downtown, two stadiums downtown, and eventually a lot of cruise ships. We ended up having the growth, limited transit, and no new freeways – a formula for congestion.

Ellis and his allies were early densifiers, arguing both to preserve a greener outlying area and to create the kind of face-to-face urbanism downtown that was deemed essential for a city that wanted to play in the big leagues of business and culture. Putting the convention center downtown, which Ellis engineered, meant lots more hotels downtown, and that kept the streets lively in the evenings. Visitors meant more exciting retail, which drew in shoppers (and lots of kids) from the suburbs. A strong bus system threaded most routes through downtown Seatttle and right by the retail core, aided by a bus tunnel. These civic leaders managed to create the kind of dense, vibrant downtown they wanted, even without rail transit.

Now, however, nearly all of the advantages of the earlier vote for transit are gone. Sen. Magnuson, who was defeated in 1980 by Slade Gorton, is departed, along with those once-generous federal matches for transit. Seattle's suburbs have added 1 million people in the past few decades, while Seattle has added only 40,000, so the city is now badly outvoted in regional issues. Ellis' skill at assembling a wide coalition (environmentalists, sports-stadium advocates, parks and neighborhood groups, and business leaders) is almost unimaginable today. Automatic media support for such big ideas is a thing of the past.

So, too, the case for putting in an expensive rail system has eroded. The costs of land in a built-up area are much higher, as are the political costs from all the disruption of years of construction. Trust in big government projects has decayed badly, with some justification. Critics of rail transit have made their case for years that rail gives a poor return for all those dollars. Ellis says, "the side that has the negative has a great advantage, since it doesn't have to prove anything."

In the absence of rail transit, Metro has developerd a good bus system. Indeed, one of the reasons that Metro King County Executive Ron Sims got off the train on Prop 1 may be so that he has more money to expand the bus system he heads. Another key opponent has been Kemper Freeman, developer of Bellevue Square, who has always pushed for more money for roads on the Eastside, not expensive rail, the better to bring Eastside shoppers to his mighty mall. In the opposition to Prop 1, Freeman was joined by the Sierra Club, arguing that spending money on highways as part of the package would worsen global warming, as well as a growing swarm of rail-disparagers and advocates for other modes of transit.

So the old coalition is shattered, and as the area has spread out over the countryside, fewer residents can imagine they are actually benefitted by a Seattle-centric rail transit plan. (A key factor in transit votes: In European cities, residents are willing to walk three-quarters of a mile to a bus or train station, while in American cities, it's only a quarter mile. Think of all the voters that costs you.) Meanwhile, possibly better alternatives to an old fashioned rail transit system have been built elsewhere, such as bus rapid transit (bus lines with most of the advantages of rail) and Portland-style inexpensive streetcars. (I didn't say Monorail!)

Then too, the fear that downtowns would hollow out without these kinds of large infrastructure subsidies seems to have abated, as many cities are enjoying downtown housing and commercial booms. "It can go away fast," warns Ellis, noting the decline of activist citizens and the way an outbreak of crime can cripple urban revivals.

Accordingly, the moment may have passed for realizing this overarching Seattle dream. The coalition and the funding are probably not there to realize anything like a comprehensive rail system. Awkwardly, there are financial and other powerful interests who don't want to give up, so it will be hard to turn the page. Like other battles extending back to the 1960s, we keep refighting the issue over smaller and smaller plans, as a kind of cultural war.

We're still unable, after four decades of this noble and sad saga, to answer Sen. Magnuson's incisive question: "Do your people want it?"


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