Securing the monorail
Special to The Times
When it's done in 2007, Seattle's 14-mile monorail Green Line will become a civic icon on par with the famed Space Needle. But on top of lingering resentment from upset neighbors, and a shortfall in anticipated revenues, monorail officials will face a huge new challenge — security.
After suspected Islamic terrorists blew up commuter train cars in Madrid on March 11, killing an estimated 202 people, you've got to wonder, "Can it happen here?" True, we're not New York or Chicago or Washington, D.C. And there's much else that's vulnerable to terrorist attack, such as bridges, ports, ferries and other forms of mass transit.
Yet, as Seattle Monorail Project Executive Director Joel Horn says, after Madrid, "This is not some kind of hypothetical" anymore.
My own take: Compared to other rail-transit operations here, the Green Line will be a distinctly Seattle enterprise, and highly symbolic. Unlike Sound Transit's already-operating commuter-rail system, the Green Line will be contained within city limits, and run through Seattle's heart, on an elevated guideway.
And the Seattle monorail, unlike the truncated, traffic-bedeviled Sound Transit light-rail line that's coming, will draw streams of riders. That, despite the current chortles — and worse — from monorail skeptics
Families, commuters and visitors will be assuming that every reasonable anti-terrorism precaution has been taken. Yet, because the monorail overestimated revenue collection by some 30 percent, I believe footing the real bill for safe operation could be tough without more money.
Here are a few of the things urban mass-transit systems need to be thinking about after Madrid, according to the Department of Homeland Security: more police officers at stations, in some cases on trains; and deployment of more explosive-detection teams.
Federal Transit Administration anti-terrorism recommendations (issued pre-Madrid) include vulnerability assessment, development of anti-terrorist measures, employee training, public information campaigns and background investigations of all new front-line operations and maintenance employees, and of contractors and others requiring access to key security facilities.
Horn says all procedures aren't finalized yet, but there will be a very strong focus by the monorail authority on security, including an emphasis on design factors, close coordination with law enforcement and other industry "best practices."
Horn says one scenario is that when terror-threat levels are elevated, armed and unarmed security officers could be deployed to monorail stations; and more closed-circuit TV cameras than usual could be used for live surveillance. In a pinch, the entire monorail system could also be shut down, says Horn.
Horn acknowledges there could be security costs requiring additional funds. Suppose, he says by way of example, fully dedicated guards at each of the system's 19 stations are deemed necessary. Horn thinks that could cost an estimated $150,000 per year per guard, or $2.85 million a year.
"If we had to do that," one possible revenue source would be a ticket surcharge, which isn't preferred, Horn says. Other options include "train wrap" advertising or special tourist charters.
Just for starters, I think we'll need at least one very well-trained, armed, public law-enforcement officer on each monorail train, preferably two during peak hours. That would certainly add to costs.
The smart approach is not to cut corners, but to get ahead of current funding restraints in a politically palatable manner. Right now, too many Seattleites are evading the hefty local excise tax on motor vehicles that's paying for the monorail. Some new administrative rules to correct that may help a little bit. More federal transit security funding is warranted, but won't yield much after it's all divvied up nationally.
The best option is collection of a special local rental-car tax for the monorail, of up to almost 2 percent. State law allows that, with voter approval. Permitted uses of the proceeds include operations. Monorail officials should also consider seeking legislative authorization — and voter approval, if necessary — for an incremental hike in the hotel tax within Seattle to boost monorail security.
Either step would require real political leadership from the monorail board, which currently prefers to downplay looming financial problems.
That said, I'm still getting weary of the bellyaching about the voter-approved monorail by self-interested property owners and urban-design idealists.
When an elevated train line is built through a city, there are going to be serious impacts, no matter what. Some views will be compromised, some shadows cast, some vibrations felt. That's life.
All the kvetching obscures this: Seattle must get the Green Line built; and run it in an age of global terrorism, with utmost attention to public safety. Let's bite the bullet on monorail security, sooner rather than later.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company