Tuesday, July 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Another '60s revival: running a monorail along Interstate 5

Seattle Times staff reporter

During the 1962 World's Fair, while tourists were boarding a new conveyance called a monorail, Gov. Albert Rosellini had a bigger dream: that elevated trains, running alongside yet-to-be-built Interstate 5, would reach the airport.

He and fair chairman Eddie Carlson talked on several occasions about the virtues of extending the 1-mile tourist monorail south beyond downtown Seattle. But they were busy overseeing the fair, and two years later Rosellini lost his re-election bid to Dan Evans, who focused on finishing the freeway.

The express-monorail idea faded.

"If it had gone to the airport, it would have been extended to Everett and Tacoma within 10 years," Rosellini, 92, recalls. "I regretted that nobody followed up on what we started."

In the past few months, however, the idea of a freeway monorail system has been resurrected by a half-dozen advocates who are running a Web site, meeting in cafes and lobbying political and business officials about the reasons to construct a regional monorail along I-5, from Everett to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

"Our system is a trunk-line system," says Jake Solomon, outreach coordinator for the Freeway Monorail group. "We want it to be a high-speed — I'm talking 60, 70 miles per hour — mass rapid-transit system connecting the cities of Puget Sound."

Freeway-monorail advocates seek to answer a question on the minds of many taxpayers these days: What would happen if the $2.1 billion required to build a downtown-to-Tukwila light-rail line and the $1.7 billion for a Ballard-to-West Seattle monorail were combined to assemble a really, really long transit line?

However, there is not much political clout, and no funding source, for freeway monorail.

Advocates are banking on a collapse of Sound Transit's light-rail plan, and after the apocalypse, freeway monorail would fill the void.

"We have to kill Sound Transit," says Solomon. Well, not actually kill it, but pack the Sound Transit board with monorail sympathizers, or force the agency to study the freeway monorail plan in depth, he explains.

Sound Transit vice chairman Dave Earling replies: "We already have a plan in place we intend to build."

I-5 sliced up city

The recent advocacy for freeway monorail began two years ago with Jeff Boone, who took on the regional transportation dilemma in his master's thesis in architecture at the University of Washington.

The construction of Interstate 5 created a slice through the city, an "orphaned landscape" that divides neighborhoods, he writes. It also imposed upon the city a very practical north-south transportation corridor.

The Seattle Transit Commission in 1957 had suggested a rapid-transit line in the center of the freeway, and in 1983 the Puget Sound Council of Governments considered light rail in the express lanes. But the freeway is too saturated to accommodate rail corridors, and there is no room to build additional car lanes in Seattle, Boone said, leading him to conclude that monorail was the next step in the evolution of the urban freeway.

In a chapter titled "unSound Transit," Boone writes that a surface light-rail line, running through Rainier Valley, will not move rapidly enough or serve enough employment centers, and he predicts that tunneling for future extensions under Portage Bay into the University District may be impossible.

Proposed underground rail stations in the U District and Beacon Hill are called "man-sewers." And in the end, Boone believes the light-rail project will reduce future public support for transit.

Instead, he proposes a 30-mile line from Lynnwood to Sea-Tac, with 23 stations at such key locations as Alderwood Mall, Northgate, Northeast 45th Street, the SoDo stadium district and the airport.

Stitching communities together

Perhaps the boldest element is to graft monorail tracks onto the sides of the Ship Canal Bridge above Lake Union. A way would also have to be found to run monorail lines above the existing freeway overpasses, and squeeze pedestrian-friendly stations into the interchanges. If successful, the stations would stitch together divided communities such as Eastlake, proponents say.

And the long-term vision is to cross the floating bridges and use Interstate 405, creating loops of monorails.

No cost estimates have been devised for freeway monorail, though supporters think it is far cheaper than light rail, which requires tunneling and property acquisition.

A big question is how many people would be attracted to a freeway monorail system.

Express buses already run on the existing high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes and have greater flexibility leaving the freeway. And freeways are not a natural magnet for the new businesses or apartments expected to follow construction of surface rail and the Green Line monorail.

"Freeway stations are dismal," said Peter Sherwin of Rise Above It All, the pro-Green Line campaign organization. "Nobody wants to walk to a station that is at the center or side of a freeway."

Sound Transit vice chairman Earling, an Edmonds city councilman, said that when the agency studied whether to put future light rail along I-5 north of the Ship Canal, the distance to the UW campus presented a huge problem.

"All of the studies we've done, whether monorail or light rail, if you just run it up the freeway, the ridership is terrible. You can't justify the cost. ... Having it half to three-quarters of a mile away cuts the ridership down terribly. Same thing would be true on Capitol Hill."

Freeway monorail backers respond with maps of census data showing that many of the area's densest neighborhoods — Capitol Hill, east Green Lake, the U District — sit along the interstate. They also point out that thousands already go to park-and-ride lots near freeways and that HOV lanes will eventually become clogged, making monorail more attractive.

Green Line supporters

Former governors Rosellini and Evans are both Green Line supporters. Evans said freeway monorail sounded like "a good addition," but he worried that so many transportation dreams and proposals were being promoted that the entire effort to improve mobility might fail.

The best way to achieve a regional transit network is to build the local Seattle Green Line now and count on its success to encourage future expansions, Evans said.

"It is doable. It is fundable. What we desperately need is a living system that works."

Mike Lindblom can be reached at 206-515-5631 or


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