The Seattle Monorail Tragedy

An Innovative and Well-Designed Project Drowns in a Sea of Confusion and Politics

by Bob Fleming

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On 8 November 2005 the people of Seattle voted approximately two to one to cancel the Seattle Monorail Project. Why do I consider this to be a tragedy?

A monorail about a mile long was built as part of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The monorail proved to be a very popular attraction and was an example of future technology. That monorail still operates today as the Seattle Center Monorail. Many people still consider this line to be an example of how to solve Seattle’s need for rapid transit by building a monorail system throughout the city and the region.

In 2002 Seattle residents approved a ballot measure to build a 14-mile long monorail line, the Green Line, to connect the northwest and southwest parts of the city with Downtown Seattle. It was proposed as the first line of five lines to cover much of the city.

An agency was set up, officially designated as the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (SPMA) but operating as the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP). The agency designed a system and reached a contract agreement in 2005 to design, build, operate, and maintain the Green Line. The SMP bought most of the land needed for the project and obtained city approval.

However there were some blunders along the way, mainly a disastrous error in estimating the amount of tax revenue that would be coming in for the project. As a result the SMP made design changes to cut expenses in an effort to build the project despite the revenue shortage. In mid-2005 the SMP announced details of the contract proposal. The line could still be built, although some features had been trimmed to cut costs. Nonetheless the design was still good and the line would be completed about the end of 2010 to provide fast, comfortable, and dependable service. However in order to finance the line, in view of the lower-than-expected tax revenues, a complex series of bond issues were planned that would take almost 50 years to pay back and the bond interest over that time would be more than $9 billion. With the cost of the project itself, the total would be more than $11 billion.

This announcement resulted in a tremendous outcry from politicians, opponents, media, and the public. The SMP board rejected the financing plan.

The SMP started working on finding a solution. The mayor of Seattle set a deadline for the SMP to provide a ballot measure to appear in the general election of 8 November. The SMP said they needed more time to find a solution to such a complex matter. The mayor insisted the SMP meet the deadline or he would withdraw city support for the project. The SMP defied the mayor. The mayor and the City council withdrew city support. The SMP hurriedly prepared a ballot measure that would shorten the line to 10.5 miles with a better financing plan. City support was not restored. The mayor, the city council, and both major daily newpapers recommended voting against the project. The measure was defeated, which means that the monorail will not be built and the SPMA will shut down.

This is a real tragedy because the public has supported the monorail as a good way to provide mass transit at lower cost than light rail and with several advantages. The planning was already done, the contract was ready for approval, and most of the land required had already been acquired. The project was not killed because of poor design, but rather because of confusion over the financing, misunderstanding about the line being shortened, and opposition from not only the previous opponents but also the mayor, the city council, and much of the media.

I don’t think the public understood that the line was only shortened to get the project underway, and that work woould begin immediately to plan completion of the line and then future lines. I don't think they understood that the new financing plan was reasonable. It was no longer the $11 billion boondoggle they had heard about. I think with all the negative publicity that people lost sight of the real purpose of the monorail — the beginning of a network of rapid transit between more distant parts of the city.

After people learn more, many will regret their decision on 8 November. Their will be more support for a monorail, perhaps even to still build the Green Line. But meanwhile the SPMA has to sell all of the land it now owns, so if it is later decided to build the Green Line, they would have to reacquire the land. And instead of opening in 2010, how many more years will it be before we get a monorail? This is indeed a tragedy for the people of Seattle.


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©2003 Robert M. Fleming Jr.

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