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Monorail!

Seattle's great mass transit project becomes a "Simpsons" punchline.

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 2005 • By JAMES THAYER
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IT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE BEEN a Jetsons future for Seattle. A gleaming new monorail would silently skim along above the rooftops, whisking contented commuters into the city so smoothly that not a ripple would mar the surfaces of their $4 Tully's mint mochas. Seattle was so in love with this vision--sleek, futuristic, anti-car--that voters had approved the proposed monorail four times, most recently last November by a whopping 64 percent.

Today Seattle's monorail proposal is a smoldering wreck. The mayor, the unanimous city council, and the newspapers have all done about-faces and have turned against the proposal. So have the citizens: a recent poll shows 52 percent of Seattleites would now vote to cancel the monorail.

What happened? Events of the past few weeks show that even a tax-and-spend bastion of social engineering such as Seattle will revolt when faced with a public works dollar figure so vast that it can only be understood in dollar-bills-laid-end-to-end-would-reach-Mars metaphors.

SEATTLE ALREADY HAS A MONORAIL, of course--a left-over from the 1962 World's Fair. The cars travel one mile on an elevated track from the Seattle Center--home of the Space Needle, another vestige of the fair--to a downtown shopping complex called Westlake Center. The trip takes two minutes. Even though it now needs $100 million to repair "an increasing number of cracks," as the Seattle Center director puts it, and even though the entire system was closed for seven months last year to repair damage caused by a fire, Seattleites love this old monorail, which stands as a reminder of past glory. After all, the World's Fair monorail even made the cover of Life Magazine in 1962.

Affection for the World's Fair monorail is what begot the new monorail in the first place. In 1997 Dick Falkenbury, a Seattle cab driver whom a local alternative paper has called "an unrepentant eccentric, " and a "giant, long-torsoed galoot of a man with scraggly hair and an unkempt, almost haphazard appearance" drew an X on a piece of paper and proclaimed it to represent Seattle's transportation future: a 40-mile monorail system that would connect four corners of the city. Falkenbury began holding meetings and gathering signatures.

City leaders were at first cool to the idea. Perhaps they understood that a monorail is an inflexible transportation systems, unable to adjust to the relative growth of neighborhoods by altering its route. Perhaps they had driven down Fifth Avenue--below the existing World's Fair monorail--and knew that the rails cast the street in perpetual shadow, and that the massive concrete supports planted in the middle of the street were traffic hazards, and ugly to boot.

Perhaps they listened to University of Pennsylvania professor Vukan R. Vuchic, who wrote in the Seattle Times that comprehensive engineering studies by Frankfurt, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. revealed that the advantages of rail and bus systems far outweigh those of a monorail: a monorail is less comfortable for riders because the interiors are small (the height of the monorail car is an illusion created by the skirts hanging over the wheels); a monorail is subject to price gouging because the systems are proprietary and few suppliers exist; and monorails are more expensive than light rail lines to build and operate.

Indeed, most monorails are used only for special purposes: as amusement park rides or airport shuttles. Those few cities that have built monorails for commuters--mostly in Japan--have learned their lesson: no city has built a second monorail line after building the first.

BUT SEATTLEITES seized on the idea of a new monorail. In 1997, when monorail supporters argued that the private sector would pay for much of the cost, voters approved the concept of the monorail. Three years later they approved $6 million for planning. Then in 2002 voters turned serious, passing Citizen Proposition 1, establishing a car tab tax to pay for the first segment of the monorail, the 14-mile Green Line. If private sector interest had ever existed, as supporters had claimed, it had vanished. The Green Line was to be paid solely by automobile owners, an annual tax of 1.4 percent of the vehicle's value, $140 on a $10,000 vehicle. The initiative set the bonding cap at $1.5 billion.

Those concerned about street-level aesthetics were calmed by a lovely drawing of the proposed structure, showing thin rails and narrow (three feet wide), curving supports resembling swans' necks. Pedestrians would hardly even see the thing.