Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
The bad hallucination that was the monorail
Seattle loves its monorail, and has voted three times for the dream of building a new one. But now we are offered a recall, and the reasons stack up to vote "yes."
The first reason is that the monorail was not hatched by rational people. There was never any window-shopping for buses, light rail, viaducts, floating bridges or what $1.74 billion might buy. It started with a taxi driver and his dream, which was co-opted by a group of believers.
The original hallucination was that the monorail would be built by private investors. That was discarded. By the third vote, taxpayers were on the hook, but for the construction only. The operating costs would be covered entirely by fares, advertising and a gaseous thing called "entrepreneurial revenues."
The hallucinations continued with the forecast of tax revenues, which started off 30 percent short. Seattle financial analyst Ben Porter, who does due diligence on rail-project finances for the Federal Transit Administration, says there is a substantial risk revenues will remain short and that the agency will have to be bailed out by city taxpayers. (Think property taxes.) A review done for the Municipal League, which yesterday recommended recall, notes that monorail has announced no provision for students, seniors and the disabled to have a reduced fare, or for bus riders to transfer free.
The first problem, then, is that this whole project is run by believers. This is what our former mayors — Norm Rice, Charles Royer, Paul Schell and Wes Uhlman — were referring to in their letter of April 27, when they warned the City Council that monorail management has "set out on a hurried course to get this done and are resistant to any doubts that this course is the right one."
Problem two is that monorail doesn't get enough people out of their cars. It has no park-and-ride lots. Its engineering report estimates 82 percent of its patrons will be former bus riders, meaning we are providing transit to people who already have it.
The third problem is that combining rail with bus service adds a transfer. Metro goes to great lengths to provide two-thirds of its patrons a "one-seat ride." Thousands will lose this when Metro cancels downtown service and replaces it with service to monorail stations. Whether riders will gain depends on whether the monorail goes fast enough and far enough. For the average rider, monorail will save 1.85 minutes — an amount, the Muni League says, that "is insufficient to justify the $1.74 billion capital expenditure."
The fourth problem is that to stay within budget, monorail planners have had to make their system skinny. In some places they have allowed single track. They have shrunk the stations, taken out the escalators and the architectural élan, and shortened the platforms to 90 feet.
Shrinking the platform limits the train. Seattle structural engineer Jon Magnusson of Magnusson Klemencic Associates, who resigned from the Team Monorail group in April, provided the platform lengths of comparable systems: Disneyland, 200 feet; Vancouver SkyTrain, 300 feet; Sound Transit light rail, 400 feet.
Ninety feet is half again as long as one articulated bus. Now, imagine a Mariner game, fans pouring out to a monorail station where awaits a train only one-and-a-half buses long.
"That's not mass transit," Magnusson says.
The fifth problem is that monorail presented itself as the first phase of a citywide system. But it is not building the Green Line as if it plans to connect to other lines, and it has no money for them anyway.
Which brings us to the sixth problem: There is only one bidder. The Monorail Authority has provisionally accepted this firm's bid but won't show us what it is.
Finally, there is Sound Transit. It may be that if the people of Seattle had the choice, they would choose monorail over Sound Transit. We are not offered that choice. We have a vote only on monorail, and that no thanks to the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority.
It's our last vote. If monorail wins, they sign the contract and sell the bonds. Seattle will have two sets of rail-transit projects, both of them underfunded, two sets of rail-transit taxes and two sets of rail-transit jobs.
Let Portland and Vancouver top that.
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company