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Tuesday, August 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Major mayoral hopefuls climb aboard monorail

Seattle Times staff reporter

The race to become Seattle's mayor could be the best thing that's happened to monorail since the 1962 World's Fair.

The three leading candidates in the nonpartisan race are jostling to show support for a new monorail system, an idea that seemed near death just last year.

Mayor Paul Schell announced his support last week. Mayoral candidate Mark Sidran endorsed it, as well. Metropolitan King County Councilman Greg Nickels, also a mayoral candidate, has "been a tremendous supporter of it, much longer than the other two," said Marco Lowe, his campaign manager.

It's not clear whether the popularity will last. Once details emerge about the cost and route of a monorail system, the gloss may fade, observers say. "In some ways, this is probably the apex of support for the monorail," said Nick Licata, a Seattle city councilman and monorail supporter.

Currently, no route has been picked, there are no firm costs for construction, and it's not even clear what type of equipment would be used.

Still, monorail advocates hope the election-year support will help turn their dream of an extensive monorail system into reality.

The troubles plaguing Sound Transit's 21-mile light-rail project, which is over budget and years behind schedule, have political candidates searching for a solution to traffic gridlock, Licata said.

Buses don't capture the public's imagination in the same way as monorail, which has won at the polls twice.

"Maybe the best thing going for monorail is that it's not light rail," said Mark Hallenbeck, head of the Transportation Research Center at the University of Washington.

Schell last week unveiled a city study endorsing monorail as the best way to link Northgate and Ballard to downtown.

The mayor has been criticized for helping kill a $50,000 grant from Sound Transit to the Elevated Transportation Co. (ETC), a citizens panel charged with coming up with a monorail proposal that is to go to voters by next year.

Schell also signed a City Council ordinance last year dissolving the ETC. The citizens panel was revived by Initiative 53, approved in November. It gave the ETC $6 million and two years to develop a monorail plan.

But Schell, who serves on the Sound Transit board of directors, says he has never opposed monorail. He said he voted against the Sound Transit grant because he believed the city would come up with the money on its own.

And the mayor says he signed the ordinance dissolving the ETC because "the mayor signs ordinances passed by the council" — unless he vetoes them.

Schell said the ordinance passed 9-0 so a veto would have been meaningless,

Like Schell, Sidran says he has supported taking a closer look at monorail. But his sincerity has been questioned.

After Seattle voters approved a monorail initiative in 1997, Sidran joked about reviving the Bubbleator, a glass ball-shaped elevator featured at the 1962 World's Fair along with the monorail.

Some thought he was making a joke about monorail.

Sidran says that's not true: "I was making a joke that if you are going to have an elevated system, you need to have a way to get up to the station. Monorails are not a joke. Bubbleators are a joke. Up with people, that's what I say."

Nickels is trying to make it clear he's a true supporter of monorail and that his support is not just the result of shifting political winds.

"It's kind of funny because Greg really worked for that for a long time, and Schell just this year saw a conversion," Lowe said. "Sidran mocked it as `let's bring back the Bubbleator.' "

Monorail has become the darling of politicians because little is known about it, said David Olson, a UW professor specializing in local politics.

"It has enough legitimacy ... that candidates can wrap their arms around it. But it is also infantile enough that we really don't know cost figures, impacts to neighborhoods," Olson said.

The monorail study the city released last week predicted a monorail system would cost $600 million to $850 million and carry up to 50,000 riders a day.

Chances are there will be downsides, said Hallenbeck, with the Transportation Research Center.

"What has not been told is how many billions is it going to cost, followed by, `This is where we're going to put it and these corner stores are going to go away,' " Hallenbeck said.

"You haven't seen any details; therefore, you haven't seen the opposition of the details."

Peter Sherwin, the author of I-53, agrees that could happen.

Still, the election-year fervor can't hurt.

The political support "clearly gives more limelight and attention" to monorail, he said.

"Hopefully, (the candidates) are not just responding between now and the election, and then they are going to reverse," Sherwin said. "I don't think they are going to bail."

He has faith monorail will survive.

"Remember when you were a kid and you first got to drive a go-cart, and how much fun it was on your bike? Traveling is fun," he said. "The only people who get excited about getting on a bus are leaving prison.

"The monorail — people really enjoy riding it."

Andrew Garber can be reached at 206-464-2595 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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