Friday, October 07, 2005

Seattle's Monorail Project: The Beginning

The Original Monorail:
Starting in April of 1961, the Alweg Seattle Center Monorail was built in only ten months. The Monorail opened in March of 1962, and with a system cost of $3.5 million, paid for itself with the fares of eight million passengers during the Seattle World's Fair. To this day, because it connects two major pedestrian centers in Seattle's urban core, it is the only transit system in the country to fund its own operation from fare recovery. It operates at a maximum of 50 miles per hour, and carries 2.5 million passengers per year - filling up during Seattle Center events like Bumbershoot, Folklife, and the Bite of Seattle, as well as sporting events and concerts at Key Arena.

Initiative 41:
As a result of the original monorail, Seattle has had a love affair with the technology for decades. Several proposals have been made since the World's Fair to expand the existing monorail, but none made it to the ballot until Dick Falkenbury, a taxi driver with a dream of better public transit, brought us Initiative 41 in 1997. The initiative incorporated a public agency called the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) and called for the construction of a 40 mile system, referred to often as a "Big X." The system was to connect West Seattle to Lake City with one 20 mile line, and the Rainier valley to Broadview with the other. This plan was brought forward with the assurance of the grassroots campaign behind it that it would pay for itself - in fact, that private developers would build the line without taxpayer dollars because, like the Seattle Center Monorail, it would pay for its own construction costs within only a few years.

The plans in Initiative 41 were specific: The system would run on rubber tires and electricity, would have set station locations (including one at the Kingdome), and would not be publicly funded - although the twist of phrase that may have later saved the ETC allowed them, nonetheless, to appropriate public funds from the City Council. The proposed 12 ETC Councilmembers were to be appointed by an even split of the Mayor, the Governor, and the President of the City Council. The City Council was also given the authority to approve or deny expenses and salaries to be drawn by the ETC Council.

Funding dries up:
In 1998 following the passage of I-41, the City Council created the ETC and gave it $200,000 to explore the idea of the monorail system. While that money was only intended for the first year of operation, it lasted until 2000, when the ETC went to Sound Transit to ask for $50,000 (to be matched by the City Council) to study ridership of a 7 mile system to connect the new stadia and the Seattle Center. Sound Transit's three member finance committee, including Greg Nickels, approved the plan. The Sound Transit executive committee denied the grant by a vote of 6 to 3, despite a 1999 resolution by the ETC that they would not attempt to compete with Sound Transit along their planned light rail alignment.

Mayor Paul Schell and City Councilmember Richard McIver were part of that 6, and backed up their position (and the City Council's) with two major arguments: First, the ETC had raised only $5500 in private funds since their incorporation. It was not clear that private funding for the project would occur, and that was part of the company's charter. Second, the study was for ridership along the route only, not an evaluation of technology, and the City of Seattle Intermediate Capacity Transit Project (ICT) was already to complete the same goals by that fall. The ETC responded to this setback with a request to the Mayor and City Council for $2 million, $1.7 million of which was earmarked to fund the study. Because of the elimination of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) due to Initiative 695, Metro Transit already needed a $120 million sales tax increase to continue operations, and the Mayor's office declined the request.

The City Council gets involved:
In May, while ETC had less than $20,000 left, City Councilmembers Nick Licata and Judy Nicastro proposed a $4 million study along the lines of ETC's resolution - to explore service on alignments Sound Transit did not plan to serve with intermediate or high capacity transit. Citing an estimated cost of the monorail line at up to $50 million a mile, McIver and three other councilmembers argued successfully in a 4-4 vote that with a $200 million parks levy and Metro funding already on the ballot, it was unreasonable to ask for more money from voters. A superior court ruling, however, woke up the City Council to the reality of that twist of phrase in Article IV of Initiative 41. The ruling gave the Council two options: Move forward with the monorail using public funds, or repeal the initiative.

In July, the Seattle City Council amended the initiative to effectively repeal it, creating an advisory committee named the Elevated Transportation Committee to enhance the ICT study to see how monorail would fit into overall transportation plans. The Council discussed putting a vote on the primary ballot for that year to let voters choose to pay for the line with a property tax increase of $570 to $1141 a year, but eventually chose not to in another 4-4 vote.

Initiative 53:
While the City Council remained indecisive, Peter Sherwin was at work gathering signatures and public support for an initiative. It would fund a $6 million feasibility study to determine the effectiveness of monorail for the five ICT corridors, and guarantee $200 million in debt for the Committee to use to construct the system. I-53 qualified for the November ballot and passed, and the ETC met again at the end of 2000.


At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Larry the Urbanite said...

Great job so far! If memory serves, during this phase (around 2000) the majority of the City Council and the mayor were against the monorail, while the voters still overwhelmingly supported it. (That support was probably due to the data available either being incomplete or interpreted through rose colored glasssses, but still...) However, the 6/7/2000 ruling mentions something important: Part of the lack of progress was due to City Council inaction. My theory is they were letting Sound Transit get a jump ahead, so that ST 's plan would be in motion (pardon the pun) before the ETC could even get rolling. I remember feeling that the CC was playing politics with thios issue, as opposed to implementing the will of the people as expressed by the initiative. [While not generally a fan of the initiative process (I believe in representative gov't), on this one issue I allowed myself some monotopical tunnel vision.]

My point being this: I think you left out how this period of non-action by the CC put the monorail at a disadvantage from the start, politically, monitarily, and momentum-wise with respect to ST's plans.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

First, I think the public was justified in supporting something that claimed to be constructable for $18-50 million per mile. That's certainly on par for a transit system, and at the time those numbers were being quoted (and I love how the monorail fact sheet from the time is now gone) they were reasonable.

I did leave out interaction between ETC and ST, which certainly set monorail at more of a disadvantage. ST was fully funded before I-41 ever hit the ballot - it has not really been at risk of losing those funds at any time since, and the City didn't have control over ST funding anyway except with their two votes in the executive committee. The study funding vote was 6-3 - even without them, it was 4-3 against.

The CC, though, wasn't given a route to implement the will of the people - the initiative provided no funding source for the monorail other than their own funding: The text of I-41 read "ETC shall seek non-government monies to carry out its purpose and goals before turning to government sources. To this purpose, the City Council of Seattle shall make funds available to the PDA either by issuing Councilmanic Revenue Bonds or raising the City's Business and Occupation Tax." Councilmanic bonds couldn't get close to funding the project, and the CC knew that putting a 155-230% increase to the B&O tax (or the property tax increase I mentioned) on the ballot would destroy any possibility of it. With the options the law provided visible, it seems that the CC took the most beneficial course for the monorail.

At 11:52 PM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

I really shouldn't say that Sound Transit isn't at risk of losing funding, considering the pending I-776 case regarding the MVET, actually. I forgot about that. :)

At 12:49 AM, Anonymous david young said...

Excellent job so far. Have yet to read anywhere the full history of the Monorail. Look foward to reading the complete story.


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