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Sunday, February 22, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

Prime Mover -- Dick Falkenbury's Monorail Dream Is A Long Way From The Station

IT'S QUITTING time in downtown Seattle and the nightly crawl home begins. Cars idle. Buses lurch and wheeze. Everyone is going nowhere fast, but no one seems to want a ride from Dick Falkenbury.

He has been driving a well-worn Red Top Taxi around the same few blocks, past Gameworks, Banana Republic and emptying office buildings, in search of a fare. He smiles and motions at people standing on the curbs, but they look right past him and his empty back seat. Don't they know he can get them out of this mess? Don't they know he's the one who hatched the plan to get Seattle's mile-long Monorail sailing into their neighborhoods?

Even a dreamer needs a paying passenger. He calls the dispatcher and asks where all the big-paying fares are. Got anyone who needs a ride to Detroit?

"They're all taking the Monorail," the dispatcher promptly replies.

Falkenbury chortles.

The joke, of course, is while the Monorail zooms silently and efficiently above the rabble of the street, it really doesn't go anywhere, either.

Many people thought Falkenbury was the joke as he preached his 22-stop, X-shaped, electric-powered, rubber-tired, driverless Monorail route that would reach Seattle's four corners and whisk riders an average of 45 mph and away from car accidents and road rage. He claimed business would pay for the system and that the stations would become bustling community centers.

The Monorail initiative was so amusing that no one tried very hard to defeat it. How could a part-time cabbie and tour-bus driver believe so wholeheartedly that Seattle could turn the Monorail - the 1962 World's Fair version of transportation in the year 2000 - into a 40-mile transit system that would not only answer gridlock, but make money, too? Would you buy a billion-dollar Monorail from this man?

It just didn't make sense - even in a town where not one but two stadiums will be built side-by-side because baseball and football teams don't want to share anymore.

Of course, the Monorail initiative ultimately made sense to almost 53 percent of the voters last November, especially since it was freed of deal-breaking detail such as cost and who will ultimately pay it. Falkenbury tapped into what every Seattle driver knows: Traffic is bad and getting worse.

What sets Falkenbury apart is that he did more than smack the steering wheel and whine. He spent four years and more money than he could rightly afford on an idea that has never been tried on such a grand scale.

He likens his Monorail obsession, in a way, to cleaning up broken glass. His father, an engineer who died when Falkenbury was still in high school, once pointed to shards of glass in the street and told him to pick it up.

"I told him I didn't do it," recalls Falkenbury. "He said, `I don't care.' I said it's not even our property. He said, `It doesn't matter.' It's kind of like that with the Monorail. I think I have a better idea and felt I should pursue it because I didn't see anyone else doing anything new."

He will be working with the committee charged with studying, building and operating the system. His shoestrings organization, "Friends of the Monorail," which he calls "so grassroots we're practically dirt," vows to keep the pressure on city officials.

But the problem with sharing your dream is that you no longer have control of it. There is no guarantee it will ever be built or resemble Falkenbury's vision. It could be studied into a slow death as it inches through Seattle's decision-making process, which even on its best days bumps along like a bad commute. It could ultimately prove too costly, unfeasible and unwelcome in key neighborhoods. Falkenbury thinks industry could pay for the system. What if it doesn't? Will citizens want a Monorail if it costs them $2 billion?

His friends say this could be the hard part for Falkenbury, an uncompromising man who believes in his ideas, even when they fail and even when they may cost more than $1 billion. He took his idea the populist route of the initiative process because he didn't think politicians were imaginative or courageous enough to deliver something so unique. He is friendly and routinely shocks strangers by striking up a conversation but he drives a cab once a week and lives in the Wedgwood house he grew up in because he can't stomach authority or taking orders. He is not a meeting guy.

He calls consensus politics a terrible thing, but his dream now depends on it.

HE ONCE TOLD Allen Ginsburg to mellow out. The hippie-radical came to Western Washington University in the mid-'70s and warned his audience of ready believers about a CIA plot.

Falkenbury was no conformist, but he didn't hesitate to take on Ginsburg, just like he never hesitated to take on any teachers, experts or conventions. "I told him the CIA was just a bunch of suits," Falkenbury recalls, "who weren't smart enough to conspire anything. I think Ginsburg was just being cranky."

Falkenbury attended Western's alternative education branch of Fairhaven College with the idea of becoming a lawyer one day. But he came to hate school, believing it was more a memorization contest than a haven for critical thinking. He also realized lawyers had to negotiate.

"To me, things have always been fairly black-and-white," he says. "I have a hard time seeing both sides."

He had been an intellectual rabble-rouser at Seattle's Roosevelt High School, where one teacher called him the second-most discussed topic of the faculty lunchroom. He was deeply involved in the underground student newspaper. When the district's Harvard-trained lawyer advised the school board they could shut down the publication, Falkenbury announced that the attorney was obviously unfit to practice law. He opposed the Vietnam War by volunteering to lick envelopes and run errands for Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign.

He ran for student-body president and came home and told his mother, "Well, I lost, but they adopted all my ideas." He was one of the oldest, biggest and loudest kids in his class and always made an impression, good or bad, whether in school plays or impromptu hallway debate.

Seattle City Council member Martha Choe was in his graduating class of 1972 and says you generally heard him before you saw him. "He was always high-energy, full of ideas and creative energy," says Choe, a skeptic of the Monorail. "He was very confident and sure of himself."

His best friend, Tyler Page, met him when they worked on the student newspapers together and said Falkenbury hasn't changed much from the high school kid who liked to tilt windmills.

"You've heard the line, `Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose?' Because he's not encumbered with the need to have status or possessions, I think that lessens his sense of risk. He has never sought success as people typically define it. He spends his time doing what interests him."

Falkenbury has driven cabs off and on for 20 years since returning from college with an Economic Sociology degree and once operated two hot baked-potato carts he set up in downtown Seattle. He would sell them like hot dogs, complete with fixins', but didn't think about selling drinks, the real markup item, and he went out of business within a year.

"My mistake was offering hot, nutritious food at a low price," he says. "People couldn't believe they could get a meal for $1.50."

He spent three years building a house in the Rainier Valley and then had to sell it and another one he remodeled to stay out of debt. He broke even, but acknowledges he should have made money. He set the rent too low. He let the deadbeat tenant slide. It took him forever to evict her.

He maintains the experience, which caused him to move in with his 72-year-old mother, was a positive. He left a livable house where there was none before and he learned he is not cut out to be a landlord.

None of his setbacks dissuaded him for a minute from jumping on the Monorail idea and riding it into the spotlight.

THE DISPATCHER finally calls. A bicyclist bent one of his wheel rims and is waiting for a ride at a West Seattle grocery store. Falkenbury heads down Second Avenue and onto Alaskan Way South.

Traffic moves well enough over the West Seattle Bridge for all but the last mile, where a fender-bender has closed the left lane and slowed traffic to a crawl.

This would never happen with the Monorail, Falkenbury says. It could run right above the center of the bridge or be cantilevered over the sides. Staying out of traffic not only ensures the Monorail would flow along at a steady rate, but that it wouldn't need drivers, up to 80 percent of a system's operating expense, he says.

Technology has advanced a long way since the 1962 World's Fair Monorail was built on those mammoth pillars that dominate Fifth Avenue. But there are no reliable estimates on just what the 40-mile system would cost. Using a one-mile Monorail in Las Vegas (which cost $25 million) as a model, Falkenbury estimates his plan would cost between $850 million and $1 billion. Other estimates peg the cost at well above $2 billion. Newark's 2.1-mile airport Monorail somehow cost $354 million.

The Regional Transit Authority's $3.9 billion plan that voters approved in 1996 won't be the answer, he claims, because more buses will just fill up the road with more annoyingly slow-moving vehicles and the north-south light-rail system will be hindered by still being in the flow of traffic.

When he finally makes it to the grocery store the bicyclist, a young man in a do-rag, hops in. The rider soon learns Falkenbury is "the Monorail dude" and calls him a genius. Falkenbury responds by showing off his knowledge of local history, geography and transportation that came in handy when he drove for Gray Line Tours. He was known to throw in a few little lies - like Susan Sarandon waiting tables part time in a Seattle diner - to see if people were paying attention.

"As long as they're getting their money's worth," the man says before handing over the fare and a decent tip.

Falkenbury, 45, may have a one-track mind about the Monorail, but his thinking is more like urban sprawl. He is well-read, especially in history, and flits across several subjects in the span of seconds. He will begin a sentence talking about earthquakes and end it talking about unleashed dogs.

He tosses out ideas. Why don't cell phones have meters on them so callers can watch their bills grow? Why aren't buses free at night to help keep drunks off the road? Why doesn't the city block off the top of the Alaskan Way viaduct each Fourth of July and charge $10 a head? Why not have "virgin day" on the Monorail to let people who have never been on it try it out and see what they're missing?

This eventually leads him on a side trip to West Seattle's Jefferson Square so he can show another of his ideas. He points out a couple of major stores, a bunch of smaller ones, surrounded by both upscale and affordable housing, all in a compact area.

He sees such community centers sprouting around the Monorail stations. Businesspeople will want to be near the active stations and will pay money, perhaps percentages of their business, to be there. He also thinks business will step forward and build or help build the system.

He says we could sell naming rights as a last resort. Charge a company millions to name a transportation system after it. The Starbucks Express?

The initiative calls for public financing only if private money doesn't appear. Falkenbury didn't even want the city to pay the $200,000 or so it will take to study the plan for a year.

Friends of the Monorail has set up shop in low-ceiling Queen Anne complex filled with glossy pamphlets from Monorail companies. It is also displays merchandise for sale: Monorail shirts and bumper stickers including Falkenbury's creation that reads, "Will the last politician to board the Monorail please take the credit?"

Grant Cogswell, the group's executive director and lone paid employee, stocked the headquarters with its office supplies - a computer, printer, copying machine - by simply asking for them on the radio. He even asked for a suit, and got it.

A poet and unpublished novelist, Cogswell is every bit as committed as Falkenbury about the Monorail and talks about cars and the suburbia they helped create with contempt.

The men met a few years ago at Bumbershoot, where Falkenbury was collecting signatures.

"He was sitting there with a sign that looked like it was scrawled by a fifth-grader," Cogswell says. "I thought he was one of the Monorail guy's helpers. I asked if he needed help. He said, `Yeah, you can help me move this stuff back into my van.' "

It was Cogswell's signature-gathering idea that finally got the Monorail on the ballot. The men affixed petitions and a map of the Monorail to large placards and left them chained to a tree or a pole for people to sign around the city.

Falkenbury is making the rounds, talking to politicians, Monorail builders, community groups and anyone else who will listen. He visited Paul Allen's Football Northwest. Wouldn't Allen like to see a Monorail run from his brand-new football stadium to his Experience Music Project at Seattle Center?

Falkenbury knows he must be flexible and thinks he can be. There is talk of making the X-shaped system a figure 8. The Monorail group is already angling to take over some of the RTA's turf and is willing to reshape the plan to do it.

But he can't help dreaming. He sees each station being so distinct that passengers won't need signs to tell them where they are. He sees public art and mailboxes and dry cleaners and cafes surrounding each one. He even imagines oversized thronelike chairs like they have in the 13 Coins restaurant so you can lean back and enjoy the commute in privacy.

He sees businesses swarming around the stations. He sees passengers swarming the Monorail. He sees authorities from around the world swarming Seattle to see how it pioneered a new way to deliver mass transit.

Build it, and they will all come.

HE'S DROPPING off a fare in the International District as he listens to two journalists argue on the radio over whether the plan is ridiculous or groundbreaking. One is skeptical, the other open-minded. He finds it an out-of-body-experience to hear people talk about him and his idea, no matter what they say.

The dispatcher brings him back to real life by asking if he'll pick up a fare at the Gay Ninties bar on First Hill. Falkenbury gets there within five minutes, pulls the cab halfway up onto the sidewalk, walks in and returns with a very drunk old woman. She slurs her address and he heads east.

He starts in on more fascinating facts. He explains how the daily rent cabbies must pay for their taxis - called "the nut" - comes from the days when property owners would confiscate the wheel nuts off wagons until being paid for parking.

The woman, a former cab driver, pipes up from the back seat. "That's not right, you idiot. If you were a cab driver for very long, you'd know that."

She never tells him her version so he keeps chattering until he realizes he has missed his turn. He stops the meter and winds his way around to her front door as she scolds him for not paying attention. She tips him $1 on a $5 fare and he wishes her well. He hops back into the cab, sighs and says, "Well, at least she wasn't driving."

Then he drives back into traffic, looking for someone else - anyone - willing to jump aboard.

Richard Seven is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Harley Soltes is the magazine's photographer. ------------------------------------------- Monorail Tales

The world's first urban monorail system was built in 1901 in Wuppertal, Germany, and is still operating today. Japan has seven systems. The first, installed in 1964, runs eight miles from downtown Tokyo to Haneda Airport. There are also systems in place in France, Australia and South America.

According to The Monorail Society, a California-based group, the systems in the United States include:

Seattle

Jacksonville, Fla.

Tampa International Airport

Newark International Airport

Disneyland

Walt Disney World (the longest at 14 miles)

Miami Metrozoo

Las Vegas

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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