Update: I meant the first and last sentences to be read as sarcastic. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. If you read the article by Kammerer, it’s pretty poorly reasoned, in contrast to what Ben wrote.  The Monorail was a lot of things, but it wasn’t a Ponzi scheme.

This, by Kent Kammerer in a piece on the “Seattle Process”, is the best description two-sentence of the monorail project I’ve ever read (Sorry, Ben):

We also, finally, rejected the monorail, albeit only after it was revealed that the financing was so flawed that the system of paying for it simply wouldn’t work. In some ways it was little more than the classic ponzi scheme.

Emphasis added.  The article is from Crosscut, which is of course in favor of the long process Seattle is famous for, except when the process has an outcome. The larger article, which advocates for even more process, is both interesting and mostly dubious, which is an appropriate description of Crosscut itself. More below the fold. I think what makes Crosscut interesting is the way a bunch of old-school newspaper guys have gotten together and tried to create a model, modern online publication, but one with old ideas if not old news. A lot of the time, Crosscut is a great read. Knute Berger, aka Mossback, is always interesting, usually insightful, often hilarious and generally fun. I rarely agree with him on density, development or transportation. Somehow for him being a fourth generation Seattlite means you should be against progress. I have him beat! I’m a fifth generation Seattlite! Still, I look forward to his columns (posts?). Even Erica Barnett, who obviously doesn’t agree with him either, calls his new book a “joy to read”. And Crosscut also gives a voice to those who obviously aren’t in it’s core readership, as Ben Schiendelman’s great piece from July or Richard Borkowski’s great piece from last April prove. But it still is the place for the Seattle-area anti-everythings on the Internet, and that’s how Crosscut has allure for me. The  Seattle P-I has a ton to offer the greater community,  while Crosscut wants to really only cater to its niche of BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).  The P-I, with a lean staff of 170 and four million visitors a day on its website, can’t survive the internet age.   Meanwhile, Crosscut espouses old-fashion ideas, is in favour of nothing, and chases after a dwindling demographic, but may have found a business model. It really is fascinating time for media.

But yeah, the monorail was a ponzi scheme and the tax payers were the rubes!

23 Replies to “Monorail: Little More Than a Ponzi Scheme?”

  1. Well, y’know, in some ways the LINK light rail system is the ultimate Ponzi scheme. Yup, that sounds real profound, and has just as much evidence as any of the articles Andrew links to, to prove the claim.

    In fact, matters went from bad to worse. In the linked article the crusty fool criticized the Highway Department for not knowing then what we know now about seismic hazards. A crime, to be sure.

    Finding no evidence there to support the ‘Ponzi Scheme’ claim, I looked at Berger’s article on monorails, where he reviews the hundred or so operating monorails in the world, or maybe he didn’t, because he only mentions four, two of which don’t even exist, and ignores the rest, which trundle about happily delivering transit service day after day with no complaints from management or riders.

    Well, here’s a newsflash, Andrew- calling something a Ponzi scheme is not like getting a stud in your navel or dropping some E. It doesn’t mean you’re getting ‘hip’ or ‘with it’ or even mature- it just means you’re getting old. And while we have lots of evidence that everyone living gets older, there’s none at all that they all get wiser.

    Chew on that for a while before you spit it out into the pile of woodshavings by the stove and start cackling about ‘Ponzi schemes’ again.

    1. I was kidding, the article was pretty ridiculous, and I was trying to make fun of the article. I guess it got lost on the web.

  2. On the specifics, ‘catowner’ is right, the Monorail was not a ponzi scheme.

    However, the U.S. economy, in general, has become very clearly, exactly that. It’s what caused the crash, and the Oligarchs are to blame, including, unfortunately, our own.

    There were problems with the monorail finance, but like with Nickels recent snow performance these responses are more symbolic of a deeper awareness, which is spot on. FWIW, folks responses to Crosscut are closely related, and rightly so. David Brewster is definitely an Oligarch rationalizer and a member.

    A word of caution, don’t get obsessed with fighting this project to the exclusion of supporting ideas you do like. It is important to do both, that’s just a fact of life, making decisions. It’s a shame we have to even waste any time at all with these scammers – but you will, if you ask right, have the support of the rest of the State.

    BTW, Kammerer’s a civic legend – mostly for his hosting abilities of a very diverse breakfast group, the SNC – definitely worth a Second Saturday AM.

    1. I was joking, the monorail wasn’t a big ponzi scheme. Of all the criticisms of the agency, that one rings the least true. In the future I’ll remember not to use sarcasm on the blog.

  3. Ponzi Scheme is the new meme.

    Did you see the news on the dem’s stimulus package? Highways, highways, HIGHWAYS!

  4. Confusing, disappointing post for this blog.

    On the larger point, I have to disagree. I also believe ‘catowner’ is correct. After all the things that had to occur to even get us working on the monorail, especially the condemnation and acquisition of property for the ROW, those stupid financial arguments reared their head. And they were the same juvenile, “roll the cost of the debt into the price-tag” types of arguments that the raised so impotently by opponents of the recent Prop 1.

    After all was said and done, a limited number of wealthy Seattle real estate developers (also in the oligarchy you mention), were able to snatch up the condemned properties for less than the city paid in condemnation, and many of which they had owned before condemnation. Thus, a few wealthy people got wealthier, at the public’s expense and the all public got was a better night’s sleep knowing nothing would be built, no progress would be made, the future would be forestalled for yet another little while.

    1. The difference between this scenario and a Ponzi scheme (sigh – do I really have to argue this?) is that this was a tragic accident rather than an engineered money-making scheme. I don’t know of anyone that worked to make this happen that had failure in mind from the beginning. But I do know people that moved their car registration to PO boxes on the east side to avoid the tax.

      1. Yeah, that is the key difference. It wasn’t a ponzi scheme, it was a poor debt schedule. Perhaps Andrew’s post here didn’t make that case effectively enough — and it is sort of flippant, obviously. On the other hand, hearing people talk about the monorail like a lost opportunity is a distraction and pretty annoying, for the reasons that Ben discussed.

        Will from Horse’s Ass said something to me recently that kind of stuck (when discussing state income taxes). He prefers his politics “based in reality.” Well, I’m the same way about transit decisions. That’s why I think some magical BRT network wouldn’t have appeared after ST2 failed, and that’s why I don’t like talking about the monorail as something that Nickels and the media killed. It was just very poorly planned, wasn’t funding itself, and set everything so lofty as to not offend anyone.

        And while it would have been kind of cool to get mass transit sooner, the monorail wasn’t going to do it, frankly. And we’ll be better off in the long run with one type of train to maintain.

        On the other hand, I recognize that some of those strongest supporter of the monorail are transit fanatics and also support light rail, subways, and maybe even BRT in Seattle — anything that helps with transit. And that sort of enthusiasm is great! But even on Link light rail, people tend to overlook flaws just as they did with the monorail. The difference is that Link has many less flaws.

      2. The two issues as I see it with the SMP were it failed to secure real political support and the finance plan was entirely broken.

        With transit you’ve got to have at least a few elected officials willing to put their political necks on the line to help the project. I saw elected officials who gave lip-service to the monorail but nobody who put their political capital on the line the way many have for Sound Transit.

        As for the financing SMP simply ran the numbers wrong before proposing their tax, and didn’t accout for the number of people who would register outside the taxing district.

        However the SMP did get a couple of things right. There is a need for high-capacity transit in the corridors the green line would have served and there is substantial unmet demand for more transit in Seattle.

      3. The “lost oppontunity” is not the monorail itself. The lost opportunity is that you had a majority in this city that was willing to tax itself in order to build rapid transit. That political opportunity is what was lost. Why couldn’t we transform that energy, that willingness on behalf of the public to invest in themselves, into something workable?

      4. Plus they secured a right-of-way that could have been used for light rail. I mean, they fought the NIMBY’s, won the lawsuits, and owned an entire stretch of usable right-of-way. A shame it was all sold back. Course, I wonder if some of that was easements or something that assumed it would go *over* existing stuff (ick).

        The monorail itself though. Well. Once something gets pared down to a capacity that has its designers suggesting that you arrange your schedule so you don’t take it during peak load… yeah.

      5. crk,
        I’m not sure the monorail ROW in and of itself would have been entirely useful for a link alignment. First it is likely ST won’t want to follow the exact same route or use the exact same station locations. Second elevated stations for Link are larger and I suspect the turn radiuses are different as well.

        On the other hand I suspect if link is built to Ballard and West Seattle it will look like the Green Line in many ways.

        Since Link to those neighborhoods is a long way off I’d love to see a streetcar to Ballard via Westlake, Freemont, & Leary with perhaps a spur to the Zoo. Similarly I’d like to see if maybe something could be built to West Seattle. For the Duwamish crossing I wonder if either the low-level bridge could be used or if a new bridge is needed if it could be built in such a way it could be converted to Link (or even better shared).

    2. tres- those properties were not snatched up for less than the City paid. In fact, the monorail turned a nice profit on those properties.

  5. “The P-I, with a lean staff of 170 and four million visitors a day on its website, can’t survive the internet age. Meanwhile, Crosscut espouses old-fashion ideas, is in favour of nothing, and chases after a dwindling demographic, but may have found a business model.”

    That tells me ideas don’t matter when it all comes down to business… something as serving to the people as the P-I running on Crosscut’s business model could thrive, maybe even surpass Crosscut.

  6. sure there were flaws and problems (short stations, huge columns, junk bonds etc) but if there was monorail there would be rapid grade seperated transit serving west seattle and ballard by next year and now we’d be lucky if theres anything comparable serving this corridor by 2025.

    even if you were against the project, it would have been worth it just for the fact that the sinking ship garage would have been demo’ed.

    1. I think the issue is that the flaws and problems were culminating such that things weren’t going to be built. I think a lot of us would have traded some flaws (i.e. at-grade light rail in the RV) for a transit system. But I just don’t think the monorail would have ever been built.

  7. Sorry Andrew, I guess my sense of humor about the monorail has become eroded by “the process”. And John Johnson’s reply to my comment really nails it- in fact, I’m just about to have a tall cool mixed metaphor to end a long day.

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