The monorail proposal on the ballot Tuesday started as a grassroots vision. No one, except perhaps the monorail's original advocate, cabbie Dick Falkenbury, believed that a renegade group of oddball activists could get a proposal as fantastic as a citywide monorail system this far. But they did, by taking their proposal to the people and selling the dream to the public. The Elevated Transportation Company (ETC), created by Initiative 53 in 2000, followed the original activists' efforts and should be commended for bringing a specific plan to voters under the initiative's rigid 18-month time line. Seattle citizens said plan a monorail, and the ETC did.
That said, this particular monorail proposal isn't what Seattle needs. It tells the public too little about what the monorail will cost, what its impact will be on neighborhoods, and what the system will look like. From the beginning, monorail was a technological solution in search of a problem. Making policy in reverse is no way to build a transit system that will serve the city in the century to come. No transit system can eliminate rush-hour traffic, and neither light rail nor buses could stand up to such an unrealistic requirement. But if we're going to spend up to $2 billion on a transit system, we need to make sure it's the right one. Here are five reasons this monorail isn't.
Seattle-area public transit is run by a tangle of county and regional agencies with no central oversight. Sound Transit, King County Metro, Pierce Transit, and Community Transit operate the metropolitan area's commuter buses and commuter rail, and so far, the separate systems have worked reasonably well. But creating another bureaucracy—disconnected from, and in many ways hostile to, the other rail agency, Sound Transit—will compound the complexity. How will the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority coordinate its efforts in Ballard, West Seattle, and downtown with Sound Transit's planned light-rail system to the east? Will Metro, which has been at loggerheads with the ETC over assumptions about bus service, cooperate with the monorail authority? We must find a regional transit solution that does not exacerbate the present confusion.
Beyond the bureaucratic jumble are technological questions. Monorail is the least-flexible mass-transit technology, and no city has ever built a monorail system of the scale contemplated by the ETC (the Green Line on this ballot is only the first stage). A citywide study found that while elevated transit made sense for Ballard, street-level transit, such as streetcars or buses, could work better downtown and in West Seattle. But unlike light rail and buses, monorail can't run at street level. Its sizable stations have to be elevated, too. And because its trains are small and light, its capacity is limited. Even the largest Bombardier monorail trains can only hold around 200 passengers, most of them standing; light-rail trains can carry more than 500.
COST AND FINANCING
How much will the monorail cost? Proponents claim the 14-mile line can be built for no more than $1.7 billion, less than Sound Transit's 14-mile light-rail system. They've even pledged to issue no more than $1.5 billion in bonds, to be paid back with a 1.4 percent annual motor-vehicle tax. But does that limit the amount the monorail authority can spend on the monorail? According to the ETC's own financial consultant, Daniel Malarkey, the answer is no. "There is no explicit cap on what the monorail can cost," Malarkey says. And although the monorail authority has to stop collecting the tax once bonds are paid off, that could be 25, 30, even 40 years. That's a long time to pay a tax that's expected to cost the average family around $200 a year. Light rail, backed by three counties and supplemented by federal money, costs Seattle residents less.
The monorail will have to cross two bodies of water and traverse seismically shaky ground. Sound Transit had to shorten its route when its own water crossing, beneath Portage Bay, turned out to be millions more expensive than the agency had originally predicted, and it has made other alterations. In contrast, the monorail's route will be set by city ordinance. If there are unexpected cost overruns, the monorail plan cannot be changed—only abandoned or truncated. History shows that costs start to become clear once a system is 30 percent designed. The monorail design is somewhere around 5 percent complete. Its budget contains no money for unexpected mitigation or litigation, except for some reserves for parking, station improvements, and unspecified "agency costs" for "non-designated construction items."
Because the motor-vehicle tax is so expensive, particularly for people with newer vehicles, the temptation to evade it will be strong. Recently, the ETC disclosed that new cars would be exempted for a year, contrary to the plan that is before voters. And if the monorail's sky-high ridership projections—the basis of ETC claims that the monorail will be self-supporting—turn out to be fantasy, an ongoing operating subsidy will be required.
WHAT WILL THE CITY LOOK LIKE?
Taste is subjective, and any fixed-rail system will have an impact on neighborhoods. But Seattle has shown a particular distaste for elevated roads and bridges. In 1982, the City Council passed a law limiting new pedestrian bridges between buildings; this year, debate began in earnest about tearing down (and possibly burying) the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Building a 14-mile bridge from Ballard to West Seattle seems out of sync with the city's antipathy toward elevated impediments. By allowing such a sweeping exemption from every one of the city's 29 protected downtown view corridors, the city abandons its claim to any moral high ground in denying such permits in the future.
Building the monorail also means tearing down the existing monorail, thanks to route decisions that put the new one along Fifth Avenue in Belltown, where the historic 1962 Alweg monorail runs. A historic-preservation request is pending before the city's landmarks board, which will make a decision after the election. But even historical preservation won't protect the Alweg from possible demolition—because landmark status will likely preserve the trains, not the monorail structure or route. The train cars could be moved elsewhere and turned into a museum exhibit or modified and run along a new monorail guideway. But many preservationists find those options unacceptable.
Despite widespread concern that Sound Transit's appointed board gave voters little real accountability, the ETC settled on a similar board to govern the monorail. Under the proposal on the ballot, the majority of the board would be chosen by the existing ETC board. Even the two members appointed by the City Council and mayor would have to be approved by this group of hand-picked ETC loyalists. Only two members would be elected by the public, giving Seattleites little direct representation on the board that would make all the major decisions that shape the city's monorail system.
A transit agency operated by true believers—with not a watchdog in the bunch—is one of the biggest complaints Sound Transit's critics have about that agency. Like Sound Transit, the ETC has not inspired confidence that it would be willing to work with the public if its decisions were to run contrary to the people's wishes. Concerns in West Seattle and downtown over noise and parking have gone mostly unheeded, and complaints that the monorail will shade sidewalks and diminish street life have been dismissed by the ETC as overwrought NIMBYism.
A recent flap over public documents shows that the planning group is resistant to an open process. The agency has spent $300,000 of public money fighting disclosure of 1,200 internal documents and e-mails sought by monorail opponents. Board members conducted ETC business with their private computers, then resisted public-disclosure requests. If the mayor or county executive pulled that, voters could respond. The monorail's governance structure offers no such recourse.
Even Sound Transit, with its appointed board, has some oversight: The federal government has to approve its project at every juncture, with critical financing in the balance. Because the monorail is a Seattle project funded by Seattleites, it would escape all federal scrutiny. If something were to go wrong, voters would have no choice but to pull the plug—a radical step that would require nearly 60,000 signatures.
TWO YEARS AGO, this city voted overwhelmingly to create the ETC and charged it with conceiving a monorail plan. The agency has responded, but its proposal has come up short. Grassroots ideas deserve a chance to prove themselves with voters. That doesn't mean they have to win. The monorail is the product of good intentions. But good intentions don't add up to $2 billion. This is no way to implement the monorail proponents' populist vision. Vote no.