Seattle populists put monorail on fast track

It started as the wide-eyed dream of a taxi driver, an unemployed poet, and some of their friends: To solve Seattle's traffic tie-ups, why not expand the city's modest but beloved monorail?

Government experts were busy hatching other plans – an extensive light-rail system and more buses.

Not on the table: Expanding the mile or so of twin elevated rails that, since the 1962 World's Fair, have connected the Space Needle to the downtown retail district. The monorail was Disneyland whimsy, not Seattle's mass-transit future.

That was 1995.

Today, the officially preferred light-rail system still doesn't exist, while the monorail has become a surprising contender for $1.7 billion in taxpayer funding.

A November vote is expected to determine whether this region's penchant for grass-roots activism can overtake its tradition of strong, sober-minded civic planning.

Depending on one's perspective, the initiative either threatens or promises to wrest transit planning from the predictable purview of experts and place it in the lap of naïve but responsive ordinary citizens.

"I predict that if the voters approve the monorail and they get it up and running – for two years, without a major scandal – it will revolutionize urban mass-transit in the United States," says Nick Licata, chair of the Seattle City Council's monorail committee.

Maybe. And maybe not.

The debate here comes at a time when many cities around the country are considering light-rail systems, or have already built them. Often above-ground trolleys with overhead wires, these typically cost less per mile to build than traditional rail systems.

Meanwhile, other urban centers are considering monorail systems. One under way in Las Vegas will traverse the casino-laden Strip, and perhaps eventually run all the way to the desert city's airport.

For Seattle, one question is whether the proposed 14-mile monorail, at an estimated $1.7 billion, will be any cheaper per mile than light rail. (Backers say it will be, and would fund it with a car tax of $140 for every $10,000 in car value.) Another question is political: Regardless of cost, will voters flock to the monorail as a rebuff to the region's transit-planning powers that be?

Surprising success

Already, the idea has won impressive, and improbable, support.

By 1997, advocates had gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the ballot ordering the city to build a comprehensive monorail system. Politicians, the Chamber of Commerce, even the daily newspapers responded with a collective yawn, punctuated by a few guffaws.

Come election day, however, 52 percent of the electorate voted to build it. A skeptical Mayor Paul Schell and most of the City Council spent the next couple of years doing all they could to ignore the decision, going so far as to urge the region's fledgling light-rail system to vote against giving monorail advocates $50,000 for planning.

"That's when I really got fired up," says Peter Sherwin, a part-time entrepreneur who had run political campaigns. He formed an organization, Rise Above It All, that waged a second signature campaign under the slogan, "Re-Elect the Monorail."

The success of that initiative, which led to more-formal monorail plans, set the stage for final acceptance or rejection this fall.

"I believe that monorails have not gotten a fair shake over the past few years," says Bill Tolbert, a transportation planner with CH2MHill in Denver, who has studied monorails in Europe, Japan, and North America. "The lightweight, low-cost, high-speed capabilities of monorail give them a significant advantage."

But opponents of monorail – and of light-rail systems – argue that rail systems generally draw riders away from buses, not cars, and are ill-suited to a society where many commutes no longer follow a suburb-to-city-center model.

In recent days, opponents of the monorail here have become more vocal with other complaints: that the system will block views, overshoot cost targets, and even that Peeping Toms will spend perverted hours riding back and forth, hoping for risqué glimpses into second-story condominiums.

"Is that where you ought to spend $2 billion to improve transportation? I don't think so," says Tim Hatley, a former aide to the King County executive here and now a private consultant.

Proponents counter that monorail's elevated construction means it won't contribute to ground-level traffic congestion and will give riders spectacular vistas of the city.

City's populist past ... and present?

In Seattle, populist movements have a legacy of preventing garish projects and saving vital parts of the city. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, populist waves swelled up and kept wrecking balls from turning Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market into parking lots and condos. Both remain top attractions for tourists and locals alike.

"But I think it's much harder for populist movements – which tend to be small and often informal – to actually do big projects," says Jeffrey Ochsner, professor of architecture at the University of Washington. "Let's say the monorail initiative passes. What you will get is professional transportation managers and planners coming onto the board. And then it will be a different organization."

Until then, Mr. Licata, the city councilman, is sanguine: "The monorail is truly a populist movement. [Its] champions are not the downtown wine-and cheese types.... They lack a certain polish that makes it difficult for the insiders to accept that they could come up with a better idea."

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