November 3, 2002

 

Greetings,

 

As an engineer, I am intrigued by the impact seemingly simple decisions early in the design of a project can have on the project’s success.  In the case of the proposed Seattle monorail, they are enough to compel me to vote against it.  I urge you to reject it as well.

 

The two key design decisions for the proposal are the use of an elevated guideway and the choice of monorail technology.

 

I have tried to ask the staff of the Elevated Transportation Company for more information.  However, answers have been hard to get.  Among other things, the ETC folks have been busy in court trying to keep secret a large number of documents (why? what are they hiding?).  Other, non-technical staff members have acknowledged my questions (submitted more than THREE weeks ago) but were unable to answer many of them.  To date, promises of answers and return phone calls have gone unfulfilled.  If they can’t tell me how fast the trains will go, how are they going to build a multi-billion dollar system?  And are they stalling, trying to ignore me until after the election?

Elevated is good, sort of

The one good element of the monorail design is separating the guideway from surface traffic.  This allows the proponents to claim that “monorails never get stuck in traffic”.  By comparison, Sound Transit’s light rail will be on the surface through Rainier Valley and I predict that they will kill pedestrians (just as Portland’s MAX has) and get stopped dead on the tracks by collisions with motor vehicles.  However, this grade separation is about the only unqualified good thing about the monorail’s design.  (By the way, light rail can also be elevated, gaining thereby the benefits of grade separation.)

 

The bridge crossing the ship canal will need to be over 200 feet above the waterway, or something like 5-6 times the height of the current Ballard Bridge (the monorail bridge will need to be about as high as the Aurora Bridge).  Due to limitations on how steeply a monorail can climb, the bridge will need to extend some 3,300 feet at both ends.  This would reach from Market St. on the north to about Dravus St. on the south.  This will be a huge, view blocking structure!  A recent Seattle Times article indicates that the bridge would be 120 feet high, which means that at 6%, the maximum grade, it would extend 2,000 feet at each end.  However, designers might choose to take advantage of the elevation at Market St. and start the northern approach there.  Also, the Times article had a sketch suggesting that the bridge would be a cable-stayed design - which requires towers reaching another hundred or two hundred feet higher.  Either way this bridge will be huge and will block views.  It might become a “defining structure” for Ballard, but it’s still opaque: “Welcome to Ballard where we obscure our views because we don’t like them”.

Convenience (or the lack thereof)

The decision to use an aerial guideway is exacerbated by elevating the entire system to at least 40 feet above the ground, higher than necessary for most of the route.  I suspect this was done to reduce the impact at street level - the noise will be dissipated, the shadow will be softened.  However, this will mean the monorail will tower over the neighborhoods through which it travels.  I suppose this will improve the view for the passengers, as if that will be such a great inducement to take the monorail (personally, I use public transit to get somewhere - if I want to admire a view, I go to a park or look out my living room window).

 

The stations will be at least 40 feet above the sidewalks, and it will be a hassle to ascend the equivalent of 4 floors to catch a train.  The monorail station near Metro’s International District station (at the south end of the bus tunnel) will be something like 80 feet above bus/light rail passenger platforms and across the street.  How convenient will this be?

 

And bicycles - how will I take my bicycle on the monorail?  San Francisco’s BART provides the means for passengers to bring their bicycles with them.  To date, I have not heard how - or if - bicycles will be accommodated on the monorail.  The ETC staff was unable to answer my questions on this (I got the distinct impression that they had not even considered this, despite the popularity of Metro’s bike racks).

 

For me, personally, the monorail will be less convenient.  I will have to walk several additional blocks to the station nearest my home, and the nearest station to my work will be many, many blocks farther away as well.

Not so fast

A lot of the publicity put out by the monorail’s supporters claims that the trains can travel at 50 mph.  While they might be capable of this, they won’t spend very much time actually traveling at that speed.  Why?  Because they have to stop at the stations... (note that their publicity says “can travel 50 mph” and NOT “will travel 50 mph”)  Monorails will take about 25 seconds to reach 50 mph and another 25 to stop.  With 10 stations between Crown Hill and downtown, over 4 minutes will be spent accelerating and decelerating.  Add 20 seconds of dwell time per station and the amount of time spent below 50 mph is the better part of 12 minutes.  It the monorail really can travel from Crown Hill to downtown in 14 minutes, then only 2 minutes of the time will be spent at 50 mph.

 

In designing a mass transportation system, the designer can choose either to have a system that is fast - that goes from one end of the system to the other as quickly as possible - or one that has a lot of convenient stops.  These goals are mutually exclusive.  If a train or bus must stop every other block, then it’s end to end speed will be rather slow.  In the north end, the only place the monorail will reach 50 mph is along Elliot Ave, as the stations there will be farther apart.  The distance between Market and Dravus streets would allow for this speed to be reached - but that would make for a 50 mph roller-coaster ride over the ship canal bridge.

 

The proponents often compare the monorail proposal to Vancouver’s SkyTrain - it’s elevated and is great, ours will be elevated and therefore great.  This might be fine, except that the two systems use different rail technologies, and the SkyTrain has no competition for riders from freeways through the downtown area.  SkyTrain also uses linear induction motors, which have no moving parts and are very quiet; it is unclear how these could be employed in the monorail’s design.

 

For comparison, steel wheel/steel rail systems can reach much higher speeds - BART hits 80 mph under the bay, Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains reach 100 mph, and various “bullet” trains go nearly half again that fast (all of these are steel wheel/steel rail systems).  For an intraurban system, these speeds are not entirely relevant, but it is not unreasonable to contemplate a University District to SeaTac non-stop express that travels at 60 mph or faster.  Neither the monorail nor Sound Transit’s light rail will be capable of this (Sound Transit, having chosen to clog up surface streets through Rainier Valley, is constrained by the city’s speed limit of 30 mph, and neither Sound Transit nor the monorail are even thinking about express operation).

Travel time

ETC claims that it will take just 14 minutes to travel between downtown and Ballard, although they have not been able to tell me from where downtown to where in Ballard (Market St.? or 85th, which is actually Crown Hill?).  According to my calculations, it will take about 18 minutes from 85th St. to Pine St., and 14 minutes from Market St.  This is not at all impressive nor is it compelling enough for me to support the proposal.  At present, Metro route 15 (express) takes 16-18 minutes to travel between Market St. and Union St., which it does quite reliably, thankyouverymuch.  After all, that corridor is not Seattle’s most congested artery.  I simply can’t see spending one and a half billion big ones and not get any real gain from it.

 

The biggest problem with the travel time  (and it’s self inflicted) is the loop around the Seattle Center.  It won’t pick up that many riders and it takes time, something like 5 additional minutes.  This is important!  Travel time is one of the most significant factors in determining whether a traveler uses one mode or another.  A study done on the Seattle Center monorail riders a couple of years after it opened showed that “respondents indicated that they would be swayed more by the amount of time involved than by the cost.”  If the travel time by rapid transit exceeds the time by other means (e.g., private automobile), then ridership drops off quickly.

 

It would be better to come up Denny, eliminating three sharp, slow speed right angle turns.  At 5th and Denny, the new system could merge with the existing system, saving a mile of new construction.  Cutting through the Seattle Center ain’t gonna happen - the city tore down the Flag Pavilion as part of an agreement with Seattle Children’s Theater, so coming up Thomas St. and blocking the views along the north side of SCT won’t be allowed, and there is not a straight shot off of John St. (which might be too steep anyway) to pass just north of the Science Center.

 

That same study mentioned above had some other observations about the Seattle Center monorail.  To quote (from Smerk; see references):

Tests conducted during the experimental period showed the monorail to be definitely inferior in riding quality as compared to conventional trains; on the other hand, it was far superior to either the bus or private automobile under ordinary operating conditions.... As had been expected, businessmen along the street where the elevated monorail beamway structure was built were somewhat less enchanted.  From a cost and operation view point, monorail technology has been shown by subsequent studies in San Francisco to be less desirable than conventional two-rail equipment for complete transit systems.

 

More on this below, but there are better options than the monorail.

Switching

Unlike the Seattle Center monorail, the proposed “Green Line” (what an unimaginative name!) will need switches.  At the ends of the line, trains will need to be switched from the outbound track to the inbound one.  By deciding to build a monorail instead of a conventional steel wheel/steel rail system, the designers are forced to use big, bulky switches (concrete beams!) instead of smaller, lighter (and thus faster) switches.  This is not insignificant.  The proponents have claimed that the system will be capable of 90 second headway, the time between successive trains.  However, at the end of the lines, there will need to be four time-consuming operations for each train: move the train through the switch, change the switch, move the train through the switch in the opposite direction, and finally return the switch to its original position.  The switches will take as much as 20 seconds to operate, so there goes 40 seconds.  The trains will be moving slowly (it’s the end of the line, remember), let’s say 10 mph.  A 120 foot train will take about 20 seconds to move through and beyond the switch, and stop.  Total switching time is then 80 seconds, leaving just 10 seconds for the inevitable problem.  If longer trains are used, then this turnaround time is longer.  In other words, the claim of 90 second headway, while possibly achievable along the line between stations, won’t be sustainable during actual operation.  Two minute headway might be, but it’ll require a really efficiently operating system.

 

And if the slow speed isn’t bad enough, the larger and more complex monorail switches will require more maintenance.

 

I asked about crossovers along the line, a standard design for any serious rail system.  These give the operators flexibility - should one train become disabled, others can be routed around it.  Crossovers also provide the possibility of express trains, where an express train can be switched around a local.  It turns out, however, that ETC has not even considered crossovers.  I don’t know why, probably because of their high cost.  This decision permanently excludes express operation.  Yes, the system would function without express trains, but imagine an express that picks up passengers in Ballard and then, like today’s Metro route 15, makes no stops until arriving downtown.  If it really could travel at 50 mph the whole way, then travel time from Market St. to Belltown could be about 5 minutes.

“Connections”

Proponents claim that the monorail will connect to other forms of transportation and will connect neighborhoods, as though they’re disconnected now (nothing is said about blighting the neighborhoods with an elevated train system or darkening major intersections with large aerial stations).  The connections with other transportation modes will be cumbersome.  Ferries?  The climb from 1st Avenue up to 2nd is already steep and daunting - add to this 40 or more feet up to the platform level and it approaches the ridiculous (by contrast, existing Metro route 15 along 1st Ave. is on the same level as the passenger loading area).  Also, the current proposal won’t connect at all with the Fauntleroy ferry terminal.

 

At King Street/4th Ave. S, the station will have to be either in the air above 4th Ave. or west of the Amtrak/Sounder station.  In the former case, it will be something like 80 feet above the platform levels of all of the trains, which will be neither convenient or efficient.  In the latter, it just gets worse...

 

One thing that accepting the monorail plan will toss away, probably forever, is the chance to have through trains.  That is, from my home near Crown Hill, I will not be able to take a train to Rainier Valley.  If Sound Transit’s light rail ever reaches SeaTac, I will have make an inconvenient transfer somewhere.  To be sure, it is unlikely that a coherent rail system would ever run a through train from my house to my flight, but I would expect that such a system would provide same-platform transfers (simply get off one train and wait for the next, much like many bus transfers throughout the city today).

 

And then there’s Lake Washington.  Supposedly, the larger of the two I-90 bridges was designed to carry rail in the present express lanes.  Sound Transit tells me that they are planning to build a junction just south of the current International District station to allow for the future construction of an eastward line.  Carried forward, this means that light rail and not monorail will cross the lake.  Hence, any travelers from Seattle’s neighborhoods to the Eastside will HAVE to transfer - there will never, ever be a through train.

 

In the discussions of replacing the current SR520 bridge, it is distressing to hear nothing, nothing at all, about running a rail line across the lake on the new bridge.  This a topic for another time, but I have to wonder why this is not being considered.

 

We have the opportunity to learn from other cities.  New York City is putting the finishing touches on the “Airtrain” serving JFK International Airport.  While the Airtrain will take passengers directly to the terminals, it will be a “two seat” ride from Manhattan (or anywhere else).  The Airtrain will have connections to the LIRR and to subway lines A, E, J, and Z, but it will be impossible to run an express train, for example, from Grand Central Station to the airport.  Why?  The Airtrain uses a different power supply than the subway’s rolling stock.  If the new tracks for the Airtrain had used the same voltage (and been connected to the subway’s tracks), then passengers conceivably could have been provided with direct service to their flight’s terminal.

 

A similar situation already exists on the other side of the Hudson River.  From Penn Station it is possible to take New Jersey Transit to a new station near Newark Airport.  From there, passengers need to transfer to a small, slow moving monorail that travels to the terminals (I have ridden this monorail - it’s lame).  Travelers can save money by taking a PATH train into Newark’s Penn Station and then transferring to NJ Transit.  It’s too bad that PATH doesn’t just extend their line all the way to EWR.  At least in Newark the same agency (Port Authority) owns and operates the rail system (PATH) and the airport.  Over at JFK, the Port Authority owns the airport, but not the subway, which might be why Airtrain got built as it did.  As we have seen over and over again, politics trumps reason, technology, and common sense every time.  (Does anyone else see any parallels here?  Like why Sound Transit’s light rail stops a mile short of SeaTac?  Oops, sorry, that’s another story for another time).

 

New York’s subway system evolved from three competing systems, built to two different designs.  While each system used standard gauge for the rails, the cars are of two different widths.  This means that the rolling stock from one can’t be used on the tracks of the other - either the cars won’t fit through the stations or they will have a large gap (nearly a foot) between the car and the platform edge.  A look at a map of New York’s subway system will show numerous locations where there is nearly identical service, lines from one of the original systems duplicating the service of another.  If we end up with both the monorail and Sound Transit’s light rail, we’ll probably have the same overlapping mess.

 

Another place where early design decisions will have major, permanent effects on future decisions is in the Bay Area.  BART uses a broad gauge for its system.  San Jose’s light rail uses standard gauge, and neither the twain shall ever merge.  Suppose at some point in the future it is desired to extend BART’s Fremont line to San Jose: the San Jose light rail tracks will have to be either ripped up and replaced or completely ignored and bypassed.  This means that it is unlikely that BART will ever reach downtown San Jose and travelers from San Jose to, say, Oakland will have to transfer, every trip, every time.  How inconvenient!  And if it is not convenient, it won’t get used.

 

I fear that we are headed for the same fate here.

Ridership

Then there’s the claim of “60,000 riders per day”.  Keeping it simple, that’d be 30,000 for each end of the line or 15,000 each way.  According to Metro Transit, “average daily ridership on 15th Ave NW corridor is about 2,000 riders” (personal correspondence, November 2001).  Where will the additional 13,000 riders come from?  By the way, the 2,000 includes passengers who board route 15 north of NW 85th St. and at bus stops that will be several blocks away from the proposed monorail station locations.  In other words, it is not certain that even 2,000 bus riders will become monorail riders.

 

The Ballard Bridge carries 57,400 vehicles per day.  The monorail proponents seem to claim that about half of this traffic will convert to using the monorail.  This does not seem likely to me.

 

I suppose that some drivers on I-5, a couple of miles to the east, will abandon the Interstate at 85th St., drive over to Crown Hill, park their cars (where?), and take the monorail.  But probably not 13,000...

 

Of course, there’s the trick of eliminating route 15 once the monorail is built, forcing everyone to use the monorail - and then claiming that it’s a success because of all of the riders!  (Yes, this has been done.)  However, this generates only 2,000 riders, all of whom already take transit instead of private automobile, and anyway I thought one of the arguments for the monorail was about “choices”.

 

15,000 riders each way, using trains that hold about 500 passengers, would require 30 fully loaded trips.  With 4 minute head way during rush hour, it would take two solid hours of packed trains to meet this preposterous number.  To be sure, there would be same direction travel at other hours, but this still seems like an unworkable number.  I mean, 7,000 passengers getting on (or off) the trains over an hour means that each station north of downtown would handle about 1,000 per hour.  Pretty busy!

 

The proponents claim that “It will remove buses from downtown streets.”  But, really, the only buses that are candidates for this are routes 15 and 54, and then only if Metro agrees to eliminate their service to downtown.  This is unlikely, as the monorail won’t completely provide the same route coverage that the current bus service does.  Very few buses will be eliminated  by the monorail.

Cost

Writing in the Seattle Weekly, George Howland Jr. warns us that the “monorail is a relatively unknown technology that has never been used on this scale in North America. Every transportation project of this magnitude goes over budget.”  When BART was built, several “cutting edge” technological features were included, much to the detriment of the system’s early operation.  Needless to say, this added to the cost in ways unanticipated in the pre-construction budgets.

 

The zealots who are pushing this project on us claim that it will cost “only” $100 million per mile to build.  As a basis for this optimism, they point to the (much smaller) Las Vegas monorail, which had costs in that range.  However, they overlook several significant differences.  First and most blatantly, the Las Vegas system does not cross any bodies of water larger than a fountain, while the monorail will cross not one but two major, navigable waterways requiring high bridges.  Heck, the ship canal crossing alone could easily cost $200-300 million (the itty, bitty Galer St. overpass cost $18.9 million; the ship canal bridge will be about ten-twenty times as long and much, much higher).  Second, the Las Vegas monorail was built by private businesses across their own land as well as other land.  It is unlikely that they had to deal with much property condemnation, or obstreperous neighborhood activists, nor the “Seattle process”.  Las Vegas also has a longer construction season and lower labor costs.  Furthermore, did any of the monorail supporters notice any significant differences in the topography between Las Vegas and Seattle?  Flat versus hills, maybe?  Could this have an effect on construction costs and operational performance?  Ya think?

 

On several occasions, the proponents have assured us that they have good cost estimates.  On other occasions, when someone tries to pin them down with questions like “will the guideway go down the middle of the street or over the sidewalk?” or “where, exactly, will the stations be built and how big will they be?” we are told that this is just a general concept that we are voting on.  Uh, excuse me, but it can’t be both.  If the design work is advanced enough to give good, reliable cost estimates, then I would expect definitive answers on many if not all of the specific questions.  Until shown otherwise, I will believe that they’re just guessing.

 

Which means they could be wrong big time.  I would feel a little bit better if the loudest proponents would put up a personal performance bond of, say, $100,000 each.  If the monorail doesn’t live up to any of the claims, then they forfeit the bond in favor of the city’s taxpayers.  Sort of like, put your money where your mouth is.  The alternative is we get sold on a system, it doesn’t deliver, and the folks who convinced us that it was such a great idea suffer no consequences while we continue to pay taxes for it.

 

And what if the funding proves to be inadequate?  We are given assurances of various kinds, but, seriously folks, when has any public project that, once started and then gone hideously over budget, then been completely canceled and abandoned?  (well, OK WPPSS, which we’re still paying for)  More likely will be the insistence that we spend whatever it takes to complete it - “we’ve spent a couple billion to get this far, so we’ve got to spend another billion or the first two billion will have been wasted.”  Of course, that means that we would then waste three billion.

 

Holding construction companies to a hard limit is no guarantee.  Either they sue for more money, claiming “breach of contract” (because the project wasn’t what they were told it would be) of they threaten to file for bankruptcy (or actually do).  There are no free lunches and there aren’t any free transportation systems.  If the monorail (or any other system) will cost a bunch of money to build, then we, the taxpayers, will pay it in some fashion or another.

 

Contrary to assertions that car owners won’t register their cars out of town to avoid paying the tax, I think many will.  In the past, some owners have done this to dodge emissions testing in Seattle, so I would expect this to happen with the monorail tax.  Not a big dent, true, but still a flaw in the plan, as is the exemption for first time purchases.

Parking

The ETC proposal has budgeted $25 million for parking lots.  Despite their protestations to the contrary, this might as well be nothing.

 

Writing in the West Seattle Herald, Eric Schuler points out that “The ETC has budgeted only $25 million for parking for the entire system (about 1,000 stalls).  This is hardly enough to cover the cost for the whole system, let alone West Seattle.  Where will all of the riders they project park?  The street in front of my building is already used as a park and ride lot for the bus stop down the street.”

 

Parking lots might be built at a dozen of the stations (the ones downtown or near the Seattle Center and the stadiums would either have no need for parking or have parking nearby).  This works out to about $2 million per station, or enough to purchase maybe 2 or 3 city lots - which ain’t much, folks (a single family residence on a 50’ by 100’ lot at over $300,000 plus condemnation costs and litigation, demolition and new construction, and it’s about $1million per house - more if the target property is zoned and used for business).  Furthermore, the city has a policy of no new park and ride lots inside the city limits.  If there actually will be 60,000 riders (or 30,000 each way) then the 1,000 parking spots (that Eric estimates) means that as many as 29,000 riders will either walk to the stations, bike, ride a bus - or drive and park wherever they can in the neighborhoods.  Or maybe the monorail won’t attract that many riders.

Esthetics

There should be no argument that the monorail will block views; certainly it will not enhance them.  Whether the beams are three feet thick or thirty, they’re still opaque.  I find it ironic - no, make that “annoying” - that the ETC staff rented a double-decker bus (with taxpayer dollars) and drove around checking out the view!  They seemed pretty proud of this, by the way...  I mean, they claim that the view from the monorail will be an attraction, and it could very well be a scenic ride - for a few minutes a day.  At the same time, though, the supporting structures and beams constantly will be blocking someone’s view, all day long - with a train going by every few minutes.

 

While the proposed design is much more humane than Chicago’s El, it is useful to note the effect that the El has had on the streets below.  Buildings constructed after the El was built were designed with blank walls at street level on the side facing the El.  No one wanted to look at the girders and such - the El is a localized blight.  When the newer “El” line was built up State St., it was put underground.

 

Likewise, the original elevated systems through Manhattan in New York City were torn down and replaced by subways (four track ones at that, allowing for full time express operation).  Washington, San Francisco, London, Paris, Hong Kong - all have underground systems, certainly in the city’s core and often for the rest of the system.  In a modern city, elevated systems have no place.  The recent edition of The Stranger (with “vote yes” on the cover) has anecdotes from foreign cities and their subway systems.  Significantly, none of these are elevated.

 

Did anyone else notice the prevalence of third world and developing countries among the locations for current monorail projects?  I suspect this arises from the (presumably) lower resistance of residents along the line, who probably don’t own their residence, and are disenfranchised by the local political process from objecting to things that diminish their quality of life.  Just a hunch.

 

By the way, the monorail operating budget relies on a lot of advertising, which conjures a rather negative image of what the stations will look like.  I fear they will become big, city owned billboards, towering over the streets and sidewalks.  Because they will be producing revenue that the city will need, there will be little reason to expect the city to impose upon itself regulations that it does on private billboards.  The result is left as an exercise for the reader.

 

One of the touted side benefits of the monorail is the opportunity to enclose utility wires inside the guideway.  This is totally unrealistic.  First, they still have to be connected to the residences or businesses that they serve, but now from 40 (or more) feet up (most telephone and cable wires are only 20 or so feet high, with electrical lines a few feet above them).  This idea won’t reduce visual clutter at all, just change it and make it harder for the lines to be serviced (they will be higher - and how safely can a line be worked on when there’s a train coming by every few minutes?).  The best thing to do with utility lines is to bury them - along with the rail system.

 

It has been claimed that property values increase near rail stations.  This might be true for commercial property, retail businesses in particular, but what about residential property, especially along the line between stations?  Those properties get little benefit by having a rail line slice through their view and add shadows and noise (yes, noise - go listen to the Seattle Center monorail) to their environment.

 

It is claimed that monorails are quiet, and certainly it is true that they generate less noise than a truck or diesel bus.  However, the decision to use rubber tires instead of steel wheels means that they will still be noisy (nearly all of the noise from an Interstate highway is “tire slap”, the sound of the rubber flexing as the tire rolls along the pavement).  Steel wheels on steel rail generate almost no noise - poorly adjusted brakes might squeal and cars rounding a poorly laid out turn might screech as well, but both of these can be eliminated with good maintenance and design.  Of course, burying the rail system gets rid of this impact altogether.

 

Mass transit works better as population densities increase and there will be pressure to increase zoning around monorail stations.  The Stranger claims that this will lead to lower housing prices, which is flat out wrong (housing in Belltown is already fairly dense - and expensive - while houses in Sultan are comparatively cheap).

Ethics

There will be a nine member governing board for the monorail, but only two of its members will be elected by the general public.  Why is this?  It sounds like a fiefdom in the making to me.  Heck, even the largely unresponsive Port of Seattle subjects all of its commissioners to the electoral process.  What makes the monorail so special?  And why a separate board, anyway?  We don’t have one for city streets, nor for Metro’s transit operations (yeah, there is one for Sound Transit, but I could write a long letter about that as well).

 

Absentee ballots were late getting mailed because the wording of the monorail’s ballot title had to be changed.  Opponents objected, and a court agreed, that the original wording was not objective.  It’s all about winning, isn’t it?

 

In similar fashion, the enabling state legislation allowed the supporters to put the issue before the voters with a petition carrying just 2,000 signatures while any future opposing initiative will require the usual 30,000.  So much for a fair, democratic process!

 

The monorail proposal has been subjected to an “independent economic analysis” which - no surprise here, folks - said it passed muster.  And why shouldn’t it get such a report from analysts associated with the probable vendors?  Yes, the city also did an analysis, but one wonders if the analysts used to work for City Light or the Seattle School District.  The only analysis that counts is the one we can do afterwards.  We are assured that the project has a 90% chance of staying within its budget.  If fails to do so, then we will be told that “things happen” and somehow we ended up in the other 10%.  And what is the basis for the 90% figure?  What North American monorail projects served as the statistical base for this number?  Answer: none, they’re guessing (and hoping), fully aware that after we vote “yes” it will be nearly impossible to stop the project - or get our money back.

Better Ideas

It is commonly said that “we have to do something” about our traffic, but let’s not be so desperate that we do something mediocre.  We’ve had enough of that in our civic projects around here.

 

Some of the monorail supporters’ campaign posters, plastered ever so tastefully on utility poles, tauntingly ask “you got a better idea?”, which hardly invites open and objective debate.  Given their attempts to hide correspondence and the proposed cozy makeup of the monorail board of directors, I’m not so sure I want them controlling a big chunk of tax money.

 

The monorail won’t solve any of Seattle’s serious traffic problems.  It will be far, far away from I-5, I-90, SR520, Aurora Avenue, Mercer St., and the 1st. Ave. S. bridge.  By comparison, traffic along the 15th/Elliot corridor is not bad (ever hear a traffic report about 15th Avenue?)  and there are several (cheaper, much cheaper) projects under way to improve that route.

 

A billion dollars would buy a lot of buses and the annual tax on the proposed city-wide MVET would fund a lot of extra bus hours, buses that could serve a lot more of the city than the proposed monorail.

 

Our traffic problems are caused by an ever growing number of commuters on a fixed amount of infrastructure, limited by a finite earth.  As long as our population continues to grow, we will continue to have traffic problems.  We can build more freeways and even monorails, but then someday the population of King County will reach, say, 5 million and whatever we’ve built won’t be adequate.  If we don’t stop population growth then at some point in the future, the county’s population will be 5 million.  Unless we work to limit the population of the Seattle area, then any other cause we work on ultimately will be a lost cause.  While a debate on growth is outside the focus of this letter, consider for a moment what a stable population would gain us - we could expend our resources and energies on improving what we have instead of continually, desperately struggling to expand.

 

So what are we to do?  I strongly believe that the future of urban transportation is underground.  A subway system is out of sight and thus quiet.  It is also protected from the weather (think about waiting on an elevated open air platform during a windy rain storm!), which benefits the passengers and the equipment (out of the rain = less maintenance problems).  Yes, an underground system will be more expensive, but doing things right generally costs more up front.  Let’s spend the money and do it right the first time.  The alternative is to realize in a few decades that we goofed, tear down the system (as New York did) and build what we could have built today - at a higher cost.

 

Also, imagine the effect of everyone moving closer to where they work...  If everyone who commutes across Lake Washington lived on the same side of the lake as their jobs, we wouldn’t need to rip up the Montlake neighborhood for a wider bridge.  Yes, this live-on-the-same-side-of-the-lake idea might not be practical for everyone, but I submit that it is for most.  As for the out of town commuters, I feel that if someone wants to live in the ‘burbs and work downtown (or vice versa), trying to get the best of both worlds, then they have only themselves to blame for their long commute.  Move closer!

 

However, the most likely outcome, given recent poll results, is that the monorail proposal will pass.  This means that Seattle will have two radically incompatible rail systems and won’t be able to raise the money to fully fund both of them.  That will suck big time.

Please Vote NO!

Building a monorail won’t change much in our urban transportation system.  In short, there is so much that is wrong with this proposal and so little that is right that I have to vote against it.  I urge you to reject it as well.

 

Thank you very much.

 

 

 

Mike Schuh

schuh AT farmdale D0T com

Home: 206-783-3960

POB 17005

Seattle, WA 98107

 

PS. I don’t have the funding that the proponents have (some of it tax money, a lot of it from monorail manufacturers, contractors, and labor unions), so I am getting the word out as best I can.  I will post this letter (in several formats) on my web page at http://www.farmdale.com/transit/monorail.shtml and I ask you to share this with as many other Seattle voters as you can as quickly as possible.  Thank you.

 

References

Brooks, Michael, Subway City

Cudhay, Brian, Rails Under the Mighty Hudson

Dougherty, Peter, Tracks of the New York Subway

Fischler, Stan, Subways of the World

Paquette, R., Ashford, N., Wright,P., Transportation Engineering

Sinkevitch, Alice (ed.), AIA Guide to Chicago

Smerk, George, Readings in Urban Transportation

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Seattle Times

Seattle Weekly

The Stranger

West Seattle Herald

http://www.cityofseattle.net/td/tfd01.asp Seattle Department of Transportation traffic count data

http://www.riseaboveitall.org/ Rise Above It All

http://www.elevated.org/ Elevated Transportation Company

http://www.monorails.org/ The MONORAIL society

http://www.citizensagainstthemonorail.org/ Citizens Against the Monorail