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

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.

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.

The fair's Alweg monorail — Falkenbury's inspiration — succeeded in part because the company that built it paid most of the costs itself. The city and private entities scrapped to keep it going. 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. The Alweg was a demonstration project for future mass transit. Few bought that vision, but the fact is that it was fast, cheap by contemporary standards, solidly constructed and it is still functional 50 years later.

If the Arboretum's "ramps to nowhere" symbolize how Seattle stopped a bad vision, the monorail stands as a living rebuke to what might have been.

Since that time, Seattle seems to have lost its quicker, just-try-it projects. Instead, we get boondoggles. The expansion of SR 520 is a classic example, designed to serve everyone with expensive freeway lids, expensive mitigation, more lanes for every use, a huge footprint, towering scale and costly mistakes. They still haven't come up with the money to pay for it all. A sleek, early 60s minimalist bridge is being replaced with a gargantuan 21st century investment in old oil-burning (highway) technology that we can't even execute properly (cracked pontoons).

A new Seattle monorail would not have been as cheap and easy as Falkenbury imagines, nor as successful. But his criticism that it became worse once the "experts" took over is resonant with other current state and city projects: the Columbia River Crossing, the Seattle waterfront plan, the downtown tunnel. One of the appeals of expanding our streetcars is that it revives a bit of the quick-and-dirty solutions of another era.

Another of those is Seattle's turn-of-the-century bike path system. 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. One of Seattle's best city engineers, George Cotterill (later mayor), devoted countless volunteer hours to creating and advocating for the system and obtaining city assistance. It was an innovative, successful public/private partnership for the public good — exactly the kind of grassroots solution that Falkenbury yearns for: simple, visionary, executable.

In many respects, Seattle today relies more than ever on volunteers — taking care of city parks for example — and the city is full of small-scale innovations like P-patches and traffic circles. They make a difference: Many projects wouldn't have happened without citizen sweat equity. But Seattle has also become more bureaucratic, controlling and prescriptive, more obsessed with inclusion, stakeholder meetings and regulatory perfection than elegant, fast execution.

A citywide monorail system was not going to be built and run by volunteers and activists, no matter how fanatical they might be. Certainly, Dick Falkenbury was not the man to design or run it.

His argument though, is that the city could do better not to require that every project be so perfect, so much an answer to family-wage jobs or social equity or so overbuilt as to make progress and innovation impossible and unaffordable. We end up with too many "solutions" we can't afford and that still don't work. We accept marginal benefits with Tiffany's price tags.

Falkenbury's monorails, like so many current-day Seattle projects, needed a lighter touch, a faster-track, a quicker decision-making process to work. They needed leadership that could coach contractors and participants to bring their "A" game. In the end, the monorail was an idea that could not "rise above" the worst aspects of our process.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.