All Politics Is Local

The Monorail Needs a Checkup

A specter is haunting the monorail: Sound Transit.

On Monday, Aug. 5, the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) sent its final monorail plan to the Seattle City Council in hopes that it will be quickly rubber-stamped and passed along to the voters in November.

Not so fast.

Six years ago, I blithely entered the voting booth and cast my ballot in favor of a $2 billion light-rail plan. I vaguely had heard of some objections raised by Emory Bundy (was he related to Ted?), but it was some kind of esoteric technical gobbledygook that I didn't follow all that closely. After all, I'd had experience with rail. When I was in ninth grade, my family moved to Boston and I became a subway kid. I took the subway to school. I took the subway to parties. I took the subway to Harvard Square to watch Luis Bu� films and comb used bookstores for existentialist literature and look for out-of-print blues records. Rail—it was a good thing.

For the last six years, I have written, edited, and read hundreds of articles about the slow, terrible implosion of light rail. Every time I think it cannot possibly get any worse, it does: cost overruns in the hundreds of millions; tunnel disasters on Capitol Hill and in the Rainier Valley; staff resignations; federal fund retractions; route changes; fewer riders; more costs; rejection by the Tukwila City Council!

Now when I think about spending $1.7 billion for 14 miles of monorail, I think: complicated, expensive, risky. Can Seattle actually move forward with a rail line in 2002?

Tom Weeks, the ETC board chair, says we can. The former City Council member is a smart, reasonable guy who is positively dazzling with all of his facts and figures. Building elevated rail is relatively cheap, easy, and fast, explains Weeks. "If Sound Transit had not had all their problems, we would not have been so cautious," in our cost estimating process, he reassures me. "We have learned from their mistakes."

Well, I've learned from mine, too: No free ride up in the sky. What we need here is a group of intelligent, hostile opponents who have some power over this project and will pick every nit and turn over every rock. Fortunately, we have them: the Seattle City Council. Now we need the City Council to do due diligence on a project that is the most expensive public works project in Seattle's history.

Unfortunately, the council members seem a bit timid. This is probably because previous efforts by the City Council to kill the monorail backfired—resulting in Initiative 53 (I-53), which funded the development of the current monorail plan.

Their hesitancy also results from the monorail proponents telling our elected representatives essentially to butt out. "We've briefed the full City Council several times. They've asked us many questions. I-53 says they are supposed to refer our plan to the ballot," says Weeks.

King County Council member Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, is one of the few elected officials with the guts to call bullshit on this bum's rush. "It's time to ask hard questions. I've been a little bit amazed that the monorail people have tried to intimidate the City Council into not asking questions."

Sure, the City Council ought to put I-53 before the voters in November, but before they do, here are some questions and suggestions for them to explore:

1. Take Henry Aronson up on his idea to build a wood or fiberglass mock-up of the monorail for a block or two on Second Avenue. (Yes, I know Aronson wrestled with conflict-of-interest charges while serving on the Seattle Port Commission in the 1980s, but the mock-up is still a good idea.)

2. How come Seattle has to pick up the entire $1.7 billion monorail tab? Usually there are some kind of matching funds from the state and federal governments for a proposal of this scale. (Plus the feds do their own evaluation when asked for dough.)

3. Why shouldn't we directly elect a majority of the nine-member ETC board charged with this monumental undertaking? Isn't that the central problem with Sound Transit, that it is a self-perpetuating group that refuses to change course in the midst of disaster?

4. Hold a hearing at which Richard Borkowski, the light-rail freak from People for Modern Transit, explains all of his technical objections to the monorail. Then tell me whether they make any sense or not.

5. If monorail is so great, why aren't any other North American cities using it on this scale? (No, the little flat line between casinos in Las Vegas doesn't count.)

As Pelz so rightly observes, "We debate everything to hell in Seattle, why not the monorail?"

For more on this subject, see "Opponents and Ethics"

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