Seattle's Monorail Project: Planning the Route
Initiative 41 in 1997 created the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) to build a privately funded monorail system of 40 miles. After two years and no progress in identifying alignments or technologies, the City Council dissolved the ETC and developed plans for studying the alignments identified in the Intermediate Capacity Transit (ICT) study released in 2000. Initiative 53, to fund this extension of the ICT study, passed the same year.
Initiative 53 funded the Elevated Transportation Company to create the Seattle Popular Transit Plan over the next 12 to 24 months, and provided for the creation of a ballot measure for Seattle voters to enact that plan once completed. It also reinstated Initiative 41 and the original rights and responsibilities of the ETC.
Throughout 2001 and early 2002, everyone weighed in on the monorail. Largely because contractor estimates for Sound Transit's Portage Bay tunnel came in over projections, public support for the monorail was high, and Sound Transit saw significant public backlash. Most published opinions assumed that monorail was cheaper than light rail, faster, quieter, more energy-efficient, and many other qualities. These issues were not publicly discussed at the time, which I believe may have led to unreasonable expectations.
Plans take shape:
In January of 2002, the ETC released preliminary route plans, and allowed public comment. The anti-monorail Seattle Weekly was the first to point out the big difference between original estimates (at most $50 million a mile) and this plan ($69 to $124 million a mile). Because light rail was projected to cost significantly more than this - near $150 million per mile, it had little impact on support for the monorail.
In March, the state legislature approved the monorail board to secure funding using the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET), rental car sales tax, a vehicle licensing fee, and property taxes. This set the stage for the ETC to announce their proposition of a 1.4% MVET in May. The ETC then released their proposed route. Supporters were ecstatic, and Paul Allen shortly proposed a streetcar to link the monorail line with south Lake Union. Critics pointed out that the new line would not go through the Experience Music Project as the current monorail does, and that the new monorail would not serve Westlake Mall businesses.
Around this time, comments began filtering into news agencies regarding whether the monorail board should be elected. Many of the original high profile supporters, including Cleve Stockmeyer, argued that it should - that accountability in a public agency was key to its success. The monorail board disagreed. Also in mid 2002, King County Metro started working with the ETC on farebox recovery, and disagreed that it could produce as much revenue as the ETC projected. The ETC countered by saying that its ridership numbers were probably too low, anyway. A judge also had to order the ETC to provide documents to their opposition after they were ruled to have attempted to withhold public information.
Citizen Petition No. 1
The ETC put the Seattle Monorail Authority on the ballot in November 2002, with Seattle Citizen Petition No. 1. It passed, with 189,000 ballots cast and a margin of just under 900 votes. After a long certification, the Elevated Transportation Company was dissolved and the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority was created and funded to build the 14 mile Green Line. Interestingly, section 6 also defined use of a motor vehicle in Seattle as a privilege, not a right.
This is where things got complicated. The monorail, at this point, was expected to cost about $1.75 billion - but their debt cap was at $1.5 billion. This isn't as bad as it sounds, because the Authority calculated the $1.5 billion in 2002 dollars and allowed it to increase for inflation, and calculated the $1.75 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars, making it less money in 2002 terms. But this did put the monorail very close to the line in terms of cost overruns - they would already have to spread out their bond issues over a few years in order to keep their maximum debt level below that spelled out in the law. As closely as Petition No. 1 passed, the Authority was not in a good position to ask for more money.
Over the next several months, the EMP was returned to the line and it was better aligned to serve several major destinations. Questions arose about noise levels - the public had seen no studies regarding the purportedly quiet system, and the existing monorail is very loud. The public also wanted to see a real design - at this point, conceptual drawings were available, but nothing vetted by an engineering group. Media coverage of the monorail subsided, up until the project financing estimate was completed.