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June 30, 2005

Monorail: A Railroad or a High Road?

Seattle's monorail project has smashed into the biggest bump in its bumpy history. This is hardly news anymore: the $2 billion 14-mile line will end up costing $11 billion, with $9 billion in interest payments, and the tax to fund it will extend until 2053. City hall and Olympia are, in short, freaking out. Read about it here, here, and here.

There's good reason to freak out. The monorail financing as it is currently proposed is absurd. HOWEVER, the monorail is not dead yet. And while the financing debacle is more serious than a flesh wound, it should not spell the end of the project. Following, I spell out a few ways to salvage it.

(Full disclosure: I am an unreconstructed believer in the monorail. At its essence it is superior to any other form of transportation in the region. You can read my in principle defense of the monorail at the end of this post.)

  1. Truncate the line. It's clearly not cost-effective the build the entire 14-mile green line without additional funding. Lopping off the arm north of downtown would preserve valuable capacity to West Seattle (even more valuable when the $4 billion viaduct tunnel inevitably implodes). It might even be possible to cut out only the downtown section, saving money on the most expensive property acquisitions. Riders could still get from the neighborhoods to Seattle Center or SoDo, close enough to walk to downtown or switch to other forms of transit.
  2. Raise taxes, or diversify. Why not raise the value-based tax on cars, perhaps extending to brand new cars--an egregious oversight in the current financing? This would shorten the terms of the debt, dramatically reducing the overall cost. Alternatively, the monorail should consider taxing 1) commercial parking (the city has the authority to do this and it has the advantage of both encouraging transit and discouraging driving); 2) cruise ships (surely, Seattleites would love this one. After all, those clueless cruisers will undoubtedly be using the monorail).
  3. Get government funding. The feds, the state, the county, and the city manage to come up with huge sums of money for all sorts of less worthy projects--the asinine viaduct tunnel, I-405 expansion, the asinine 520 expansion, the South Lake Union streetcar, and light rail, not to mention buses. There's no reason, in principle, that the monorail shouldn't be subsidized by government funds.

Of course, any of these three solutions would legally (and ethically) require going back to the voters yet again. I think that would make it 5 times. There is, however, really no other solution. The monorail's current plans are bad enough that city leaders should kill the plan. But before they kill something that Seattle's voters really want, they should make an honest effort at trying to fix the problem first. Remember, the monorail could be a very good thing for Seattle. We just have to figure out how to make it work.

Post-script: Why the monorail is a good thing

  • It is funded by a value-based progressive tax on car ownership. It therefore kills two birds with one stone: it both discourages car-ownership and encourages transit ridership. (Also, at present its funding is more congruent with its service area than any other transportation project in the Puget Sound region.)
  • Obviously, an elevated train is immune to grade-level congestion and construction. All else being equal, this makes it quicker, more efficient, and more reliable. It is, therefore a more appealing choice to riders.
  • The monorail offers something additional that no other form of transit can: unique aesthetic quality. Not only is a monorail an iconic symbol, but the potential views--especially in a city like Seattle--are bound to be wonderful. It's quiet, sleek, and has a kitschy futuristic quality. (I know that number-crunching planner-types don't put much stock in this, but aesthetic value really does--and should--matter in our cities.) It is, therefore a more appealing choice to riders.
  • Complaints about the shadow-effect of the stations and rails are red herrings. They are belied by the experiences of every city with an elevated train (at least that I've ever visited). Areas near el-train stops are usually vibrant, thriving, and dense centers. In fact, developers have already begun inquiring about building up the areas near monorail stations.
  • For the last time, it is not argument against the monorail that it won't reduce city congestion. Nothing will--not road-capacity expansion, not high-speed buses, not light rail, not carpooling, and not even the monorail. Street congestion is here to stay. But it's an open question whether people will have other options that will allow them to move quickly despite the congestion. A monorail can accomplish this with an efficiency and aplomb that no other form of transit can.
  • Also, for the last time, it is not an argument against the monorail that it is not the cheapest way to move people. No one except the pocket protector crowd cares. Seattle voters have consistently volunteered to tax themselves for the monorail (for all of the reasons that I mention here). Just try floating a popular initiative for expanded bus service, the apparent fave of transportation engineers. The point is: the monorail does in fact move people--quickly--it discourages car-ownership, and Seattleites want it here.
  • It's the cleanest and greenest form of transit. Monorails run on electricty, which in Seattle is climate neutral, emitting no net greenhouse gases, and does not contribute to air pollution. You can't say that about non-electric buses, not even biodiesel buses, or trains.
  • Still a doubter? Visit Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is home to one of the few large-scale big-city monorail lines in the world. (Okay, I know it's not exactly next door.) I've ridden the monorail there and, yes, it lives up to all the claims that I've made in this post. KL's monorail is truly fantastic. Seattle's could be too.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink


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Tracked on Jun 30, 2005 2:34:50 PM


I hope Seattle can fix the plan rather than kill it. I agree, Kuala Lumpur's Monorail is terrific. We have a nice picture essay in our Special Features page if anyone is interested.

Kim Pedersen
The Monorail Society

Posted by: Kim Pedersen | Jun 30, 2005 11:34:35 AM

Nevermind the egregious financing scheme, the basic route of the Greenline is not half what it could be. There were many optional routes between West Seattle and Ballard. The chosen route cannot serve the most people nor direct the most future development (and future ridership).

The planning and decision-making were always conducted behind closed doors. The public has no idea what sort of development could/should occur around the monorail stations. The newspapers and media concentrate on the costs, but ignore the more important questions about route, station and development.

I am a fan of monorail and am extremely disappointed that SMP deliberately ruined Seattle's chance to build this line. Joel Horn can [expletive deleted by editors].

Posted by: Art | Jun 30, 2005 1:35:12 PM

From the Seattle Times, here's another thing the Seattle Monorail should do to save it's awful financing plan from torpedoing an excellent transit plan: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2002352457_tomstone30.html

Here's the crux:

Have the SMP, the mayor and City Council order a rebid of the project. A rebid will finally bring competitive teams to the table so monorail backers get the plan they voted for and taxpayers get a plan they can afford.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Jun 30, 2005 2:17:33 PM

This financing plan is ludicrous. That the SMP staff believed such a plan was defensible is evidence of just how immature the SMP is as an agency. When Sound Transit screwed up they were forced to start over and admit mistakes. Their board became far more skeptical of staff promises. The monorail must go back to the voters with a better plan if they are to survive. As to your suggestions, truncating the line is a valid option. Instead of building a non-expandible system of single tracking, etc. we should build something for the next 100 years. Any new taxes would have to be authorized by the Legislature--wait until next year--what is the rush? They could raise the MVET, but would it pass at the ballot box? As for federal funding, SMP simply wouldn't qualify for federal money because they can't meet the FTA requirements on ridership, etc. The state simply won't vote money. And the city has more pressing problems to put money to.

I have not been a supporter of the monorail. There are advantages and disadvantages to elevated transit. Obviously it rises above traffic, but short 90 foot stations to save money and preserve neighborhoods mean it carries less people and isn't easily expandable. To pretend that elevated transit is without flaws is silly.

A few more notes.
"at present its funding is more congruent with its service area than any other transportation project in the Puget Sound region."--how so? The entire city is paying for something that only benefits W. Sea and Ballard. The downtown service won't be used because they will have no ride free zone.

"unique aesthetic quality"--there will be nice views at spots, there will also be many views of roofs. At least riders in the Rainier Valley will actually see the vibrant community as it is and see businesses they might want to visit.

"Complaints about the shadow-effect of the stations and rails are red herrings" Are they? This is a very bulky plan. And if the streetscape is so nice, why is SMP not releasing mockups of the system so we can judge for ourselves?

"Seattle voters have consistently volunteered to tax themselves for the monorail"--we voted ONCE. The first vote was on a joke X shaped plan with no tax, the second was to give $6 million in planning money to see if it was doable. The fourth vote was on an ill-concieved recall plan that many of us thought was bad public policy even if we didn't support the monorail.

Light rail runs on electricity as well.

We should not pass this plan. If you believe monorail is a good thing, fix the plan and don't be afraid of another vote. If it deserves to be built, the voters will pass it.

Posted by: bfree2think | Jun 30, 2005 2:19:15 PM

I agree with you, bfree2think, the monorail must go back to voters. It can't be allowed to continue in its present mutilated form.

However, a few responses to your comments...

1. Sure the whole city pays for a line from Ballard to West Seattle, but that is a heck of a lot more congruent than the entire nation, state, or county (or even city) paying for the Viaduct rebuild. Consider any major transportation plan and you'll find that it's financed with taxes from all over the place. The monorail is much closer to taxing just those who will benefit. And by the way, the rest of the city will benefit from the Green Line even if it doesn't pass through their neighborhoods.

2. Unique aesthetic quality will come from the design of the monorail itself, which I think is inherently more interesting than a train. It will also come from the views. Riding an el-train is a unique perspective on the city that you can't get any other way. You can get light-rail views from a car or the sidewalk.

3. We voted at least twice, even on the most conservative assumption. Once to approve the green line and once on the recall.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Jun 30, 2005 3:37:01 PM

Thanks for the response. I am really not sure what point you are making on the tax and the area it benefits. I think that kind of selfish balkanization, "what's in it for me?" is one of the things that stops rational policy making.

Who knows what the design looks like? SMP has been artfully vague for an agency that wants the city council to rubber stamp their plan in 45 days.

My main point was that elevated transit is sometimes a wonderful thing. But like anything, it does have real pluses and minuses.

Posted by: bfree2think | Jun 30, 2005 3:55:44 PM

Why on earth does Seattle need YATA (Yet Another Transit Agency)? I voted against the monorail not because it was a stupid idea but because creating another transit agency seemed insane.

Metro and Sound Transit both do an excellent job of delivering service with the funds provided. Sound Transit has had ups and downs, but it has service running today and it is investing more each year.

Now that I am a Bellevue resident, I ride ST 550 into Seattle, with service every 5-10 minutes during rush hour and every 15 minutes throughout the day. I actually get to downtown Seattle faster now than when I lived on the north side of Queen Anne hill.

Instead of fixing what was perceived to be a boondoggle (ST light rail) by creating another boondoggle (SMP), can't we merge the two? (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/opinion/230601_skip30.html)

Improving, or fixing if you feel that ST or Metro is broken, seems to be a better way to go than creating a whole new mess.

Posted by: Matt Leber | Jul 1, 2005 11:24:29 AM

Mass-transit projects are always overbudget and take too long. It's the nature of the business. I think there's more than a little naivete on the part of the board (as that PI editorial suggests) and the public in thinking that the Monorail would be any different.

As to the "congruency" of the the tax base and the projected ridership, I have to say that is one of the most reactionary ways to fund government. I'm honestly surprised to see it mentioned on a progressive blog like this. Especially because it's completely at odds with the "progressive" MVET tax, which Mr. de Place seems to favor. If congruency is so important, why should people with more expensive cars pay more?

Posted by: Frank Bruno | Jul 1, 2005 2:59:01 PM

One of the funding options authorized by the legislature for the monorail is property tax. I wonder if the monorail could legally opt to only tax the LAND value and exempt the value of improvements, as suggested in NEW's book "Tax Shift"? Hopefully this would be seen as a more progressive tax than the existing MVET (given its new car exemption and controversial valuation tables) or a traditional property tax.

Posted by: Rodney Rutherford | Jul 1, 2005 3:18:26 PM