Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Seattle Monorail

Full disclosure: I voted twice to study the monorail project in Seattle. When it came time to vote for funding, I voted against the monorail. By the counts of monorail supporters that means I voted twice for it and once against it, but that is not the case. Seattle has not had 4 votes for the monorail. What they have had are votes to study it and votes to fund it.

Why did I vote to study the monorail? Because our traffic in the area is a mess. Politicians either don't trust the voters to tell them the true costs of the programs, they lag behind on producing them so the costs go up, or their accountants just can't come up with sound figures. Pick one of the three preceding reasons or draw up one of your own, but the fact remains that the region faces serious transportation issues and is unwilling to address them. A vote to study the monorail, to my mind, was then a vote to show politicians that they have support for showing backbone and going forth to look at bold ideas.

Only, the city council, in it's arrogant wisdom, refused to even study the monorail. After a first vote, the council decided they would continue down the path of light rail, which no one sees as a panacea, but rather as part of a solution, and not bother to listen to voter's intent. So, a second vote was held and once again, I voted to study the monorail as part of a transportation solution, as a reason to give city officials to grow some backbone and look into new ideas, and to tell the Seattle City Council to stuff their arrogant ways.

This time the council got it and commissioned a study of the monorail. The report came out and a vote was scheduled. My experience with monorails goes back to Detroit's boondoggle - The People Mover. Granted, it's a poor reference point. Detroit's monorail project was vastly different from the one proposed in Seattle. The People Mover is a shorter route, only caters to business districts and not neighborhoods, and Detroit is not a city with a traditionally reliable mass transit nor large mass transit ridership. The Seattle proposal would accommodate neighborhoods as well as businesses, it was a longer route (14 miles versus 3 miles), and Seattle is generally favorable to mass transit as well as having a reliable system.

However, when I looked at the numbers for building costs, maintenance costs, and ridership, I did so with a skeptical eye. I really wanted a monorail for the city. It's a really cool idea. Vancouver, B.C. has one and it's got a pretty good ridership. Plus, a monorail would be a tourist attraction that could tie downtown hotels with Seattle City Center's parks and meeting rooms, among other things. Truly, as an idea without concern to costs and ridership, it was visionary. Unfortunately, when I read the articles and compared the costs and ridership projections to Vancouver's model, I found holes in the Seattle proposal. The building and maintenance costs were too low. Ridership estimates were too rosy. Costs would be supported by what seemed to me to be unrealistic increases in car tab tax revenues. Federal and state funds were not forthcoming. Sadly, I felt that it was not in Seattle's best interest to build their monorail...not without a better funding package and more realistic estimates. I voted against it.

To it's credit, Seattle voters passed the initiative. It was a bold move. It suggested to city leaders that if they weren't willing to take on the job of leadership, it's voters were. Not only that, but voters were also willing to fund the initiatives. While Tim Eyeman and others elsewhere in the state framed this as Seattle being frivolous tax and spenders, the fact of the matter was that it was costing the rest of Washington nothing. Seattle was addressing it's transportation issues and were willing to pay for it. Despite my skepticism in the numbers, which remained, this was personal responsibility on Seattle's residents. Mr. Eyeman was being an ass, as usual, and a demagogue. He used his view of Seattle's light rail and monorail initiatives to win 2 tax rollbacks in the state. That was irresponsible behavior - defunding the state without finding other revenue streams.

As time went on, I moved out of Seattle. I watched from outer Monrovia as the city produced hopeful headlines on the monorail. The views were going to be great! The art was going to be terrific! The path around Seattle Center was going to offer stops at the EMP and Key Arena! People were excited, but costs were rarely discussed. Eventually, the news began to change. Once bids were sent out and real figures began to arrive it turned out that it was too costly as originally envisioned. The views were going to be good, but not as good. There would be more columns than expected. The art, well, it wasn't even discussed anymore. The tax revenues were way behind what they were estimated to bring in even if the cheaters were caught.

A few weeks ago the final cost was announced to voters. In order to build the Seattle Monorail, voters were going to have to take on debt financed over 50 years ballooning the $2-3 billion plan to over $11 billion. That's around $8 billion in interest alone. All of a sudden voters began to feel cheated. The state auditor called for voters not to back the plan. Mayor Nickels withdrew his support and last week called for a third vote (remember, 2 of the votes were to study the monorail) on the monorail. He asked the commission to submit a plan by tomorrow or city hall would draw up it's own ballot initiative. Today's Seattle Times reports that among other options, the monorail commission is considering shortening the route by not detouring around the EMP and Seattle Center. They are also considering shortening the route altogether which would pull it out of some major neighborhoods.

In some ways, this makes me very sad. I wanted to see a bold initiative rise up organically and take root when it came to resolving Seattle's transportation woes. I didn't believe in the costs, but I believed in the vision. I truly hoped it would bring about a new hope for the city and to demonstrate to it's own leaders as well as those elsewhere in the state and nationally, that people are willing to take on the hard choices.

A part of me still believes that this last point is true. I hope that Seattle voters don't see their optimistic visions for transportation crushed by this setback and replaced by the cynicism that seems to gridlock the rest of the state. Nickels, rather than lead in this discussion, has decided to put forth another vote on the topic. That's too bad as it indicates to me that Seattle's representatives still are not ready to lead when it comes to transportation. It seems to me that the original monorail votes were a mandate to lead, but rather than take it that way, Seattle's City representatives have chosen to be cowered by voters. Listen, Greg, in a representative democracy, you're expected to make choices - tough ones, even - rather than put everything to a vote, otherwise, why do we have a council and a mayor's office in the first place? I can hire someone to run pothole and traffic light fixes for a lot cheaper than your salary.

There is an argument yet to be made for the monorail, but I don't hear anyone standing up to make it. It's a reasonable one, too. It goes something like this: "The costs of the monorail are not fully discovered by looking at the dollars to construct and maintain it. What about the savings realized by drivers not sitting in longer lines in traffic? What about the savings realized from cleaner air? What about the savings realized for riders who get from start to destination quicker? How do we measure these savings when we talk about what the monorail will cost over 40 or 50 years?"

At this point, it doesn't seem like this argument will be made. I don't know if anyone even has the studies and figures to begin to address these issues. Sadly, it seems that come November, faced with limited time to make the decision, limited information on which to base that decision, and overwhelmingly negative numbers for financing construction and maintenance, Seattle's voters will kill the monorail vision they gave birth to. Now, who will pick up the political pieces from here and use them to offer a bold, but fiscally justifiable plan for a better transportation solution? That's what I'm waiting to see next from my perch in outer Monrovia.

3 comments:

Christian said...

Great post. I suppose if I would add anything, it's that some of us are trying to get the message out there that our city needs this, that the benefits of building such a thing outweigh the costs.

2045 Seattle

Albatross said...

You could point to the experience we had here in Minneapolis just getting a single, short light-rail line put in place. It was vehemently opposed by everyone from the environmentalists (who objected to the felling of ancient oaks along the route) to every Right-wing nutjob (local idiot mouthpiece David Strom suggested the money be used instead to buy SUVs for the poor to drive).

I really don't understand the objections - people seemed to be opposed to light rail on principle and ideology. To them, light rail was some kind of communist threat, doomed to failure.

Since opening, the line has been a phenomenal success, the cars have been packed, and the service is very popular. Revenues are much higher than anticipated. The worst part has just been the traffic management along the line - the intersection delays have gotten quite ludicrous. Aside from that, a success.

Maybe Seattle can skip all the bloviating and bullshit and just implement the service and enjoy the benefits of success that much sooner.

B.D. said...

Albatross, I predict the same fate for Seattle's light rail solution. It's being built with an eye to expansion later. The ridership will be terrific and it will be very popular. My one concern: that they are saving money by discontinuing one stop - in the poorest district where such options are most needed.

Christian - I'm going to give your site a bump up with a plug in a post today. I think it's well worth the time to promote discussion and debate. Thus far, in the press, the debate doesn't exist. No one's printing positive visions for the monorail.