It’s not very often that Seattle Transit Blog recommends rejection of a proposal to devote more resources to transit. Indeed, some board members voted for one or more of the monorail’s previous measures. However, the latest incarnation, “Seattle Citizen Petition 1,” attempts to address a real transportation need with a measure that is redundant, technically flawed, and that takes unnecessary organizational risks.

The petition, which would levy a $5 license fee to fund planning of a line between Ballard and West Seattle, is duplicative of recent Sound Transit efforts in the exact same corridor. Worse yet, the monorail plan would exclude promising underground options and alternative alignments like Ballard-UW.

These shortcomings lead to real technical problems. One reason that Sound Transit continually converges on underground alignments through dense cities is the intense opposition that elevated segments generate. Previous monorail plans never really solved this problem, and the current one envisions bypassing major activity centers and transit hubs downtown by traveling along the waterfront, a steep climb they hope to bridge with an added transfer to some other, unspecified, elevated technology, with the attendant transfer penalties and further political fights over elevated guideway.

The historical record suggests that new agencies running complicated capital projects will experience serious problems. Sound Transit had buy-in from local leaders and survived, but the Seattle Monorail Project did not, and didn’t.  Petition 1 will needlessly set up a new organization to learn the same hard lessons, and has not cultivated a broad base of support to get it through the tough times. The campaign is promising unrealistically short timetables, as if they are somehow immune to the Seattle process that afflicts every other public works project. Finally, the campaign rhetoric is very much in opposition to Sound Transit and the rest of the political establishment, which bodes ill for the joint planning and scheduling that creates a well-integrated transit system.

This measure’s probability of developing a high-quality transit line is virtually nil. Citizen Petition 1 is a waste of resources that distracts from much more promising and better-developed approaches to solve a real transportation problem. Vote No.

The STB Editorial Board currently consists of Martin H. Duke, Frank Chiachiere, Matthew Johnson, and Brent White.

67 Replies to “Vote No on Seattle Citizen Petition 1 (New Monorail Agency)”

  1. While I can’t vote on this myself, I may have convinced two co-workers to vote “No” on this earlier this week. Just doing my part.

  2. I love the article. It addresses most of the problems, while being professional and pleasant.
    I’m voting no, for all the reasons above, and for one other. The whole thing doesn’t pass the sniff test. Unrealistic timetable, with a made up budget (that ISN’T eligible for Federal $!), promising the moon, promising that somehow everything will just go fine and we dont need contingencies, with a board made up of people who have never actually accomplished anything like this ever. Its like being told by a carpenter that he can have a custom designed and built drag racer at your house by next Tuesday for $100 up front. For sure. You don’t give that guy any money.

  3. Your criticisms of this monorail proposal are needlessly kind — the reality is actually much worse than you state. This proposal is not a serous proposal, and would be a disaster if passed.

    That said, lack of buy-in by local political leaders had nothing to do with the collapse of the previous monorail effort. That proposal collapsed because it was run by amateurs who promised much more than they could deliver for way too few dollars. Unfortunately the leadership of the SMP was to egotistical to admit their problems and deal with them head-on. Political support was there originally, but evaporated when it became clear that the proposal would go nowhere..

  4. Please make loud and clear at the top what initiative this is. At first, I thought that it was about the Seattle measure to add bus service.

    1. This is why I wish that ballot measures could stop reusing numbers. So many “Prop 1″s on the ballot, so little care by voters.

      1. The problem isn’t reusing numbers, it’s that there’s three different government entities involved. The pre-school measures would affect the City of Seattle, the sales tax measure for transit would be levied through Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District, and the monorail initiative would create a new government agency, the City Transportation Authority.

        That said, I agree it’s silly. It would be better to assign them random, four-digit numbers.

  5. The editorial board is being very polite here, as they should. I’ll be less polite. This is a crackpot proposal. It has no chance whatsoever of accomplishing anything except setting planning money on fire.

    1. One only has to look at the history of the primary sponsor to know this is nothing but crackpottery.

  6. “as if they are somehow immune to the Seattle process that afflicts every other public works project.”

    I’ve lived in the country for most of my life, so my viewpoint is highly biased. Nevertheless, I’m always utterly perplexed why things take soooooo long to be planned, approved, and built in the Seattle area. I’m incredibly excited for a light rail to someday be built out to Ballard, but at the current rate of growth, I can maybe expect to see it by 2040, which is so very depressing.

      1. It’s not just the process. It’s that the various opposing factions have about equal power, so they can all prevent each other from going in any direction. Only things that have some sympathy from a coalition of factions get done.

      2. The “Seattle Process” can move really fast with the right hands guiding it. See the $15/hr wage but for one example where there wasn’t years of dithering.

        If ST3 is on the ballot in 2016 and it passes the primary factor controlling the timeline will be how long Sound Transit needs to wait for money to come in. There isn’t nearly the contention there was/is over the viaduct or East Link. While the full EIS process will take some time as will applying for Federal grants these are hurdles any US rail project faces,

        That said a 2026 opening date is probably the earliest one could reasonably expect.

      3. The $15/hour movement didn’t affect property values.

        It seems like everyone who owns a Seattle SFH is petrified that their investment is going to go down the drain if the slightest thing changes in the neighborhood. The Seattle Process is at its ugliest when anything having to do with land use or transportation is involved. Land use, because everyone in Cedar Park thinks it’s going to turn into Belltown overnight if they’re not unceasingly vigilant, and transportation, because they think they won’t be able to park on the curb by their house for free at all times.

        (Cedar Park picked only because I lived there until a couple months ago — substitute the SFH area of your choice.)

      4. The $15/hour movement didn’t require a funding mechanism. Neither did the tunnel, or most of the big freeway projects you see. But build light rail, or even just pay for basic bus funding and you need to pass a local initiative. It really has little to do with the Seattle process. We just don’t have a real republic in this state. We have a dysfunctional democracy. On the one hand, we want government to solve our problems, but on the other hand, we don’t want to pay for it. This usually works itself out via our representatives, but in this state, thanks to a lot of stupid initiatives and other problems, it doesn’t. Of course, our representatives aren’t doing a very good job right now. There are very few Republicans like Dan Evans around anymore.

    1. Seriously.

      I’m sure Monorail Prop 1 will be well supported by Ballard and West Seattle residence who are sick of standing room only on buses and waiting for ST to provide rail service (2040 just doesn’t cut it).

      I’m tempted to vote for it just to put more pressure on ST to give us a solution while we are still living.

      1. Except, would it put more pressure on ST, or would it just tie up tax dollars and give ST more headaches and delay trying to negotiate with the monorail board?

        (That’s if it passes. The ideal solution would be for it to fail with 45% of the vote and a vigorous campaign of “We Need Grade-Separated Transit Now!”. But, unfortunately, that option isn’t on the ballot.)

      2. Ya, sure, vote for a joke and you will get a joke.

        And if this passed it only delay ST from addressing anything in the corridor. ST would never do anything there while another voter approved transit agency was attempting to build something. This isn’t the late 1800’s where competing railroads would build track parallel to each other for miles….

        So, sure, vote to waste more taxpayer money while delaying real transit for Ballard-WS, because that is exactly what you are proposing to do.

      3. As a Ballard resident, I’m still going to vote no for it. Sure it’s tempting to vote for something that gives a shiny glimmer of hope that maybe someone cares enough about Ballard and West Seattle to give us transit in a reasonable timeframe. But this measure is simply a boondoggle to the highest degree. A tax to form a committee just to plan the monorail? They’re not even going to build it, just plan to build it! We don’t need another transit agency, we have enough already — and they already have plans to serve West Seattle and Ballard (or at least more solid plans than this measure).

      4. One problem is by setting up a non-serious board and assuming the tax authority they make it difficult to use that revenue stream for serious transit proposals.

        There is also the issue of critics (and the monorail board itself) wondering why there are two agencies planning mass transit infrastructure in the same corridor.

        Worst case is this passes and the board attacks and attempts to sandbag Sound Transit and the City whenever possible.

        Best case is the measure just barely fails, which would put actual pressure on elected officials.

      5. There is exactly one way to get rail to Ballard and (eventually) West Seattle: Support ST3 in 2016. Support getting it on the ballot and then passing it. Everything else is just a distraction. (And, in the meantime, vote for Prop 1 to get a better C/D line.)

      6. Put pressure on ST by telling ST that you want ST to build to Ballard, not someone else. Telling them that you want someone else to tackle that project takes the pressure off them, not on them. If you want to help pile on the pressure, transit wonks are always welcome to pitch in at Seattle Subway.

      7. “if this passed it only delay ST from addressing anything in the corridor. ST would never do anything there while another voter approved transit agency was attempting to build something.”

        And that’s exactly what happened, here, in Ballard, in the late 90s and early 00s. ST excluded Ballard and West Seattle from its light rail plans, and Seattle excluded BRT enhancements in the area. RapidRide was going to be the local shadow for the monorail, but guess what there’s no monorail! Seattle revises its Transit Master Plan once a decade or so, and a zombie monorail remained in it all the way until last year’s revision. What’s important is the alternative investments that would have been made in those areas if no monorail had been coming.

        Now, light rail is not expected in Ballard or West Seattle until 2026 at the earliest. But if the monorail had not happened, Seattlites might have put different pressure on ST and the region. A “Seattle Subway” movement might have started earlier, and the suburbs might have gotten on board with acceleration earlier, and ST3 might already be underway. Or maybe not. But the point is that monorail decisions don’t occur in a vacuum. If the first monorail project did delay light rail and/or BRT improvements, then maybe the second monorail project would do the same.

      8. @Mike Orr,

        I’ve said it many times; The monorail movement delayed real transit on Seattle’s west Side by at least a decade, maybe two.

        The same can be said about our old 1962 monorail. Just having that around reinforced the idea locally that transit is easy, fun, and cheap. Well it’s not, and never will be.

      9. @David

        Any scenario with the monorail measure passing does not end well.

        Arguably having it barely fail could put pressure on the powers that be, but then again it may just encourage the gadgetbahn crowd to keep trying.

      10. “I’m tempted to vote for it just to put more pressure on ST to give us a solution while we are still living.”

        To be clear, if the measure passes, it would cause ST to take Ballard and West Seattle off the table for ST3. That would then give North King a ton of money to spend (assuming Everett and Tacoma are still on), which would most likely go to the 45th line. So, Ballard again, but maybe not a good transfer station, and maybe two separated stations, if ST has to make a decision but the monorail board is not ready to. Or ST could stay away from Ballard completely, but then what would it do with all three of its next Seattle lines excluded? It’s unlikely to turn to Lake City or Aurora at that point (which would need initial studies), so the net result might be postponing ST3 or calling it a day on expansions.

      11. You are giving way too much credit (or blame) to the monorail folks if you think Sound Transit is slow in getting rail to Ballard because of the previous initiatives. Keep in mind, Sound Transit is so slow, they still haven’t made it to the U-District yet. That’s right folks — we still don’t have a line between the two biggest economic growth engines or the three biggest urban centers in the state. But don’t worry, we will have rail to Angle Lake soon (oh goody).

        Oh, and when the light rail finally makes it to the UW, it will be placed on the wrong side of campus. The UW itself deserves some of the blame for this. Eventually, of course, we will have a U-District station, which will be much better, but that won’t come for many years.

        The reason for the suburban centric (and thus under performing) rail line are complicated, but the monorail has nothing to do with it. If anything, it was a shot across the bow of Sound Transit. The folks sent a message (albeit a silly one) that they wanted grade separation and they wanted it now (and it didn’t have to be underground, either). If anything, the monorail silliness caused Sound Transit to work on West Seattle. That itself is silly, but I guess other, more deserving places will have to wait. Maybe if I propose a Central District monorail…

      12. @RossB
        U-Link is scheduled to open in 2016 the same year as Angle Lake the last time I checked.

        Originally Sound Transit was going to go north first. However due to construction bids coming in higher than expected they decide to go south first and re-study the alignment between Capitol Hill and the UW. A Montlake crossing of the ship canal was chosen to avoid the technical risks of a Portage Bay crossing and two deep mined stations. Once a Montlake crossing was chosen the first station north of the ship canal was always going to be on the wrong side of campus. Due to funding issues the First Hill station was deleted and the initial segment of U-Link was cut back to UW station. Much-delayed? Yes, but at least Sound Transit has avoided some of the problems other local transit projects have had.

        As for Ballard and West Seattle, it is true they were never on the table for ST2. However due to the Monorail they were left off the long range plan until after the Monorail failed.

      13. “However due to construction bids coming in higher than expected …”

        … and the risk of cost overruns…

        “they decide to go south first”.

        “Due to funding issues”

        Due to engineering discoveries that First Hill station was too sharp an angle and incline between between Westlake station and Capitol Hill station…

        “the First Hill station was deleted”.

    2. It is a bummer. But depression doesn’t help fix it.
      Have you checked out Seattle Subway? We are group committed to putting pressure on officials and Sound Transit to accelerate the construction of Seattle’s subway system, with Ballard a huge priority. We’re pushing as hard as we can for ST3 to go to ballot in 2016.

      1. A group committed to Sound Transit and cannibalizing anything that doesn’t contribute to the over inflated egos of its leadership is more like it.

      2. @Sam Hill

        Well I believe that most people’s view of Seattle Subway is a little more nuanced than yours.

        The focus of Seattle Subway is to advocate for fast, grade-separated transit connecting Seattle’s neighborhoods. That’s the over-riding principle. That happens through grassroots organizing, like having educational booths at farmers markets, and through organizing public comments on government planning. Sometimes there is direct lobbing, trying to share our vision of a city and region with great transit with the local leaders who can make it happen.

        Sometimes the job of advocacy means we do cheerleading when something great is happening. Like Sound Transit trying to get a good ST3 package to the voters in 2016. Sometimes we have to push for things that longshots, but would be great. Sometimes that means being critical of a plan that we feel will be a detriment to transit in this city.

        As for me, I have never volunteered for Seattle Subway to feed my ego. This would honestly be a strange way to feed ones ego, cause its a bunch of pounding the advocacy drum over and over, and trying to forge slow, steady, and sure headway.

      3. I think he meant ST’s overinflated egos, not Seattle Subway’s. But there are no overinflated egos here. Everything Sound Transit has done with Link can be traced back to logic, compromise with the other political powers, engineering realities intruding, and ST’s early budget problems.

    3. as if they are somehow immune to the Seattle process that afflicts every other public works project.”

      I’m sorry to say, but you haven’t sene how things are done in NYC.

    4. Ren, and Southeasterner, since I remember clearly the events around the last monorail project, you’ve raised a tremendously important point here.

      A very large amount of the energy behind the campaign- and suspect this one as well- had to do with what looked like a pig-headedly stupid determination on the part of Sound Transit, King County Metro, and the City of Seattle, to seriously consider some badly needed fast transit for the west corridor of the city.

      Chief excuse indeed was: “Well, we’ll get to it after Sound Transit is built out.Year 2040 probably exaggerates, but looking at how many years it after DSTT project opened (19) doesn’t bode well.

      So I’m glad that Seattle Subway is getting into action, and wouldn’t mind seeing something modest and do-able, having grooved rail and catenary too. Extending the SLU line to Ballard would cool a lot of overheat.

      Last monorail effort, and this one in unlikely attempt it passes, will show something Adolph Hitler’s experience also proved, as Germany collapsed in blazing wreckage: politics based on sheer frustration- including things to do with engineering- head straight to disaster.

      But cure entails enough attention and action to keep the frustration from getting to combustion temperature.

      BTW- might want to mention another consideration: the ground south of Jackson Street is water with a little dirt in it. And further north, a pile driver could take five years’ worth of damage if it hits wreckage of Big Bertha.

      Mark Dublin

      1. And that should be pigheadedly stupid determination NOT to include affected west side area.

        In 1800’s New York City, herds of pigs ran the streets- truly assisting in garbage disposal and also giving poor Irish immigrants the free ham and pork chops they would literally have been hanged for taking back in Erin.

        Difference here is that pigs were never asked, and seldom offered, any preference in transit planning.


      2. There was nothing as ultruistic about the last monorail campaign as you seem to suggest. It was not about deploying transit somewhere because ST and Metro were too slow, it was instead about showing ST up.

        Remember that ST was still recovering in this period and had very little to show for themselves. The monorail was going to show them up-build something better, more capable, and do it faster and for less money. It was this anti ST element that drove the monorail campaign and not a fundamental desire for more transit in undeserved corridors.

        And remember, the original monorail plan was a 40 mile X pattern overlaid on top of the entire city. The goal was to serve the entire city with monorail, not to complement ST.

        But we all know how it ended up. The clowns turned out to be not very funny, and the slo pokes turned out to be slow, but capable.

        I don’t think monorail would pass today. Too many people would ask, “why not LR?” And even in the old days the monorail only passed by 780 votes anyhow.

      3. The monorail was in between. It was born of frustration that nothing else was being done. Link’s route was known but not its grade. Every other light rail at the time had been watered down to the cheapest surface alignment, with only the barest minimum of tunnels or elevation (MAX’s Washington Park station). They were afraid Link would be watered down like that. Also, when the monorail team made a multiline long-range plan, they worked around Link’s corridor and presumed future route (Northgate, Lynnwood); they didn’t have competing parallel lines as if Link didn’t exist.

      4. That “X” plan was the reason many people I know voted for it originally – it was a direct descendant of the 1968/1972 Forward Thrust subway proposal, which was then and is today a vastly superior plan to what we ended up with. People in places like NE Seattle (and, I assume, NW and SW) looked at this and thought “hey, this proposal actually serves my neighborhood.” Now someone in Lake City, a more densely populated area than West Seattle, is told that AT BEST you can go to 130th–a station that hasn’t even been fully approved yet–or go to 145th (backtracking) or to the far side of the Northgate conglomerate of suck traffic (somewhere nobody from LC or anywhere else from NE Seattle would go unless they were going to the mall itself) to access the city’s rail transit system. It stands to reason that looking at the first monorail proposal a lot of people in a lot of corners of the city saw a chance to get direct rapid transit that ST was not going to provide any time soon.

        I voted for it for those same reasons. I voted against it when it was clear that it was a poorly organized idea that was never going to get anything done the way it was structured and going to be funded. I will be 59 or 60 by the earliest date Ballard will see grade separated transit. I was in high school when I started getting involved in the local transit scene as a NE Seattle kid who saw the 1972 plan and thought it would still be a good idea. I will not likely live to see that part of the city get grade separated transit, and that makes me sad. That’s too many damn years to get something accomplished.

    5. If you think the Seattle process is bad, try the Wisconsin process. They spent quite a lot of money and all they have to show for it is a lawsuit and two unfinished Talgo trains.

  7. A Modest proposal:

    How difficult would it be to get a state wide initiative to strike the mode choice “monorail” from the law that enables these monorail initiatives and replace it with “grade separated” with no specific mode choice.

    Also: Write language encouraging the use existing agencies, or requiring that newly created agencies are elected separately (or accountable in some way).

    Finally: Open the option to all municipalities state wide to tax themselves to install new local, grade separated transit infrastructure. I am sure places on the East side might appreciate that option.

    1. I think the previous attempt only had the word “elevated” in the referendum that actually gave it budget authority.

      1. That’s too bad! Polling and comments show a clear preference for a subway over an elevated line.

      2. It does specifically call out “monorail” but defines it as a guide-way with its own right of way “that is not light rail”

        It could be used as-is with some careful use of wording, but I would prefer if we just open it up to what it should be used for, and open it up for every city that could want one (on their own dime).

      3. From RCW 35.95A.010:
        (5) “Public monorail transportation facilities” means a transportation system that utilizes train cars running on a guideway, together with the necessary passenger stations, terminals, parking facilities, related facilities or other properties, and facilities necessary and appropriate for passenger and vehicular access to and from people-moving systems, not including fixed guideway light rail systems.

        In theory one could use this for just about anything other than local diesel bus service. However it would be better if the definitions were rewritten to specifically allow anything the FTA considers “Fixed Guideway Transit” which includes BRT, trolley buses, and all forms of rail transit.

        I’d also support allowing any county, city, or transit agency the authority to make use of the taxes authorized.

    2. As difficult as it is to get the state to do anything else. We’re still waiting for the state to pass a transportation bill, and to give Metro some funding options that don’t depend on a boom-and-bust sales tax and allow needed countywide expansions.

      Regarding this particular phrase, I doubt legislators would be opposed to changing it, since it was really pushed by local Seattlites and if that faction has diminished I don’t see anyone else standing up for it. A bigger problem is that the legislators might say this shouldn’t be done on its own but only in the context of a transportation bill that looks at all issues. But the state failed to pass a transportation bill last year, and we don’t know if it will succeed this year or next year (if that’s the biennium).

    3. “Open the option to all municipalities state wide to tax themselves to install new local, grade separated transit infrastructure.”

      Wider than that. Community Transit, Skagit Transit, and Pierce Transit all have needs that don’t require “grade separated transit infrastructure”, just incremental improvements. CT has a list of five Swift lines ready to go, not to mention restoring Sunday service, but it’s at its tax ceiling.

      1. If the wording is that wide, it might not get used for grade separated transit in Seattle. I think leaving the grade separated bit in is a good idea.

  8. The Seattle Times estimated the cost of this proposed monorail at almost $2.5 Billion USD. That does not cover the cost of the financing or inevitable cost escalation that would likely double the estimated cost. If this project is paid only by Seattle residents, that is almost $7000 for every citizen of Seattle. Transit systems have to be regional and interrelated; this proposal would create a very expensive Disneyland ride only. We have much more pressing transit projects (like repairing the Burke-Gillman trail); please please vote NO on this poorly conceived and wasteful project.

    1. My parents joke that I’ve never met a tax I didn’t like. They’ll be thrilled; this is the first one.

  9. Here we go again. Is this the 6th time we’ve voted on a monorail in the last 15 years?

  10. Although I doubt it would bring a sea change, I can’t help but wonder that if this would even get traction if the ST3 planning studies had discussed why monorail isn’t a suitable technology in their work. Given that this is not a new idea, spending $10K or $20K on explaining its costs and speed in a side-by-side comparison of other modes would have been a very strong blow to a monorail referendum.

  11. Monorail advocates need to be patient with ST, the momentum is finally there. Starting in little over a year ST will be averaging 3+ functioning stations coming online/yr for the next 7 years. Given Seattle’s topography I don’t think this is too bad. Systems like Denver’s and Portland’s built out so fast and cheaply because of the flat and at-grade nature of their routes. We need monorail folk to get behind ST3 and ensure that viable and well thought-out Ballard spurs are implemented, and that we continue to average at least 3+ stations for several more years.

    1. A low threshold of signatures. I’ve heard it’s especially low for monorail measures, so you too could run your own monorail measure. I wonder if we could use that in a more responsible way. Hmm, maybe that Denny Way gondola?

  12. While I am not eligible to vote in this election, I will say that a $5 car tab fee would not seem to raise enough money to build much of anything, and that we have been through this process once before to no successful conclusion. I would suggest, if I may, that the “Century Transportation Authority” not limit themselves to one mode (monorail) and let other technologies (ALRT, etc.) compete. The alignment(s) seem sound on the surface, just getting them built. Also, this might be a good opportunity to explore a public/private venture like the Canada like in Vancouver to our north.

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