One-track mind: the return of the monorail

Signature-gatherers are drumming up support for another monorail to save us all from transit hell. Just sign on the dotted line.
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The Seattle Monorail project: laid to rest by the Seattle process

Signature-gatherers are drumming up support for another monorail to save us all from transit hell. Just sign on the dotted line.

Don’t look now, but the monorail is back — as a petition drive and, assuming that succeeds, as a ballot measure next November. Your correspondent happened to be one of the first to be approached on the very first night of signature gathering, last Friday in front of Trader Joe’s on Capitol Hill.

The monorail now in question, as authored by Century Transportation Authority, would run between Ballard and West Seattle via Interbay, the downtown waterfront and the SoDo stadiums, with Burien and Sea-Tac as future destinations. It’s the same route as the Green Line that voters approved three times from 1996 to 2002, then finally rejected after it got mired in a toxic finance plan — with a couple key, perhaps fatal differences.

The Green Line would have crossed the Ship Canal on an unbroken high bridge and run straight through downtown, originally down Second and then, yielding to local resistance, down Fifth Avenue. The new Century Transportation Authority proposal would cross the canal on a cheaper drawbridge and follow the right of way left behind by the Highway 99 viaduct.

Century Transportation is the personal project of Elizabeth Campbell, a Magnolia activist with a plainspoken manner and a diverse résumé of causes: She headed her neighborhood’s planning council, ran for mayor in 2009 (outpolling the other outsider candidates, for what that’s worth) and waged an initiative campaign to block the waterfront tunnel (she liked the viaduct).

Campbell actually announced the Century Transportation effort last year, then put it on hold while her signature-gathering operation hired out for other campaigns — this year’s Seattle district elections measure, the upcoming Protect our Gun Rights initiative and one in California.

Getting enough signatures for the monorail should be easier than those campaigns. The state law that enabled the establishment of the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (SPMA) in 2002 requires that just 1 percent of the city’s 410,000 registered voters sign a petition to put a new monorail scheme such as Campbell’s on the ballot.

Campbell also argues that Century Transportation will gain a head start and cost savings by incorporating much of the engineering done for the earlier plan. Too bad it can’t also pick up the properties acquired for stations, which the SPMA sold off when it dissolved.

She and other monorail supporters might also learn from the failings of the old monorail authority, which led the voters to finally pull the plug.

The SPMA fell under a glib executive director, Joel Horn, who had killed his previous project, the Seattle Commons, with grandiose overreach, and proceeded to do the same with the monorail. He saddled it with a bloated staff and costly, overbuilt redundancies: tracks twice as high, pillars sunk down to deep bedrock rather than spread footings. Then again, bloat, bungling and overbuilding (no bedrock pilings, but Mussolini-worthy mega-stations at Mt. Baker and Tukwila) didn’t kill Sound Transit’s light rail.

SPMA's board kowtowed to a mayor, Greg Nickels, deeply invested in light rail and determined to kill the monorail. It projected wildly optimistic car-tax receipts based on apples-for-oranges figures for car ownership, supplied by, of all sources, Sound Transit. And it let a fatally invidious inconsistency in cost reporting take root, first in The Stranger and then in other media: Whereas other megaprojects are routinely described in present-dollar terms, (i.e., $4 billion for the initial light rail line, originally promised at $2 billion) absent future finance costs, the Green Line ($2 billion, originally promised at $1 billion) was commonly described as costing an indigestible $11 billion, without noting that that figure included 50 years of bond interest (protracted by that paltry tax base).

No sooner did Campbell announce her plan last year than the knives came out again. Transit mavens on the rail-friendly Seattle Transit Blog predictably jeered it: “How many votes is Seattle to have on the monorail? I think they’ve had enough.” “They want to resurrect the old SMP monofail plan and build it for about 25 percent less than the SMP couldn’t build it for? It’s impossible and a guaranteed failure.” “I think the achievable option is to accelerate Sound Transit.”

Actually, a feasible monorail for 25 percent less than the final bloated, bungled SPMA plan isn’t unthinkable. Monorails like that are still getting built, and working nicely, around the world. But the longest-running veteran of the monorail wars sees some very different fatal flaws in Campbell’s proposal.

“It’s done away with everything that’s good about monorail and got everything that’s bad about transit,” says Dick Falkenbury, the tour bus driver-turned-transit savant, who launched the original monorail campaign back in 1995-96. One of these alleged flaws reprises his original scheme: Running from Ballard down Interbay, where people aren’t, instead of the 99 corridor, where they are. But most of them are departures from it: Crossing the Ship Canal via a drawbridge rather than a high bridge will mean this “rapid,” nearly no-wait transit will bog down, just like Rapid Ride buses. Whenever a yacht or barge wants to come through. Following the waterfront, this new monorail would make a steep climb away from downtown, which will serve tourists and cruise-ship passengers at the expense of commuters.

To connect a waterfront monorail with downtown, Campbell proposes an on-demand PRT — personal rapid transit — circulator, a.k.a. a “horizontal elevator.” But PRT is yesteryear’s next big thing, which no one anywhere has fully achieved. “I just can’t believe it’s going to work,” huffs Falkenbury. “Right now they’re planning a gondola from I-5 to the waterfront,” huffs Campbell right back. “That seems farther out there than PRT.”

All these issues won’t keep Century Transportation from reaching the ballot. And they don’t gainsay the inherent technical advantages of monorail, especially in a built-out city, broken up by hills and water barriers, like Seattle.

The only way to escape congested traffic and the sort of impediments that slow the so-called Rapid Ride is on dedicated, unbroken right of way. Going elevated is a cheaper way to do that than tunneling. and can provide easier passenger access. (Have you lugged luggage or a bicycle up from the Westlake tunnel station lately?) And it’s not such a neighborhood killer, pedestrian menace and access blocker as surface rail. (Four-plus years of the light rail that was supposed to revive the MLK Way corridor have left it blighted as ever.)  

Monorail isn’t the only way to go elevated. Witness Vancouver’s Skytrain. But with its lighter cars, narrower guideways and driver-free automation, it’s the cheapest, least intrusive and most affordable. And its rubber wheels, like those of trolleybuses, can climb hills (Capitol, Queen Anne, West Seattle, etc.) that defy steel wheels on rail.

It’s not surprising that the monorail dream never seems to die in Seattle, however many billions we invest in streetcars and light rail — despite the best efforts of friends and foes alike to kill it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.