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The Seattle Monorail is an important and underutilized transportation system. It connects downtown with Uptown. Specifically, it connects Westlake Center (right next to the most popular Link light rail station) with a stop inside the Seattle Center. While the Seattle Center is a popular destination in its own right, the station is only a few blocks from a very populous and very popular neighborhood. It travels this distance in two minutes. Since it travels above traffic and intersections, this is must faster than any other form of public transportation along this route, and much faster than a car in typical traffic.

The monorail is owned by the city, but for the last ten years has been operated by a private contractor, Seattle Monorail Services (SMS). The contract is up for renewal, and the city is poised to go with SMS again. I have no problem with SMS, and assume they do a fine job. However, there are two big flaws with the way they are operating right now, and I don’t believe we should renew the contract until those flaws are corrected.

The first problem is lack of ORCA card support. Monorail fares are cash only. The fare itself is reasonable, and in line with other transit systems (Metro bus, Sound Transit train, etc.). But the lack of ORCA support severely reduces the number of people who use the system. Monthly pass users receive no discount; full fare is charged for transfers; and even those who want to take the monorail and only the monorail are inconvenienced. Given the lack of ORCA support, my guess is the vast majority of riders are tourists (or their companions) out for a ride, as opposed to people simply trying to get from one very popular spot to another. Riders who avoid the monorail for this reason are likely to take the bus, and put even more pressure on a crowded bus system.

The second problem is frequency. The monorail runs every ten minutes. This is not terrible, but there is no reason why it can’t do better. Given the first problem, I’m not surprised that it runs every ten minutes. It is viewed like an amusement ride, not a serious form of transportation. Delays for an amusement ride are not costly. If you really want to ride the monorail, then you’ll wait (just as someone will wait to get up the Space Needle). But from a transportation standpoint, it is detrimental. Typically, the monorail is still faster (and in many cases more frequent) than taking a bus, but the advantage is reduced because of the ten minute frequency. We can do better. Three minute frequency is possible, but would probably require better (and possibly more expensive) crowd management. Five minute frequency, on the other hand, should be simple and easy.

The next step in the renewal process occurs Tuesday, December 2, 2014. The Seattle City Council Parks, Seattle Center, Libraries and Gender Pay Equity Committee meets to discuss and vote on several topics. But the most relevant topic is the renewal of the SMS contract, or item 4 on the agenda. The contract is for ten years, and is summarized by this memo. I am asking Seattle residents to write the council and ask that they delay renewing the contract until these issues are addressed.

The long term goal is fairly simple, and has two parts. The first is that the monorail accept ORCA cards, the same way that other transportation agencies do. Compensation for the agency should work the same way as it does with the other agencies. It is quite likely that this will increase the money that SMS earns. Many of the current users are tourists that don’t have ORCA cards, while ORCA users shun the monorail. The second goal is that frequency on the monorail be increased from ten minutes to five minutes.

It is too late in the process to add an amendment to the operating agreement. That is why I will ask the council members on the committee to simply extend the current contract for a year, while details of the new contract are addressed. I don’t think the city should enter into a ten year agreement with SMS without ORCA support. There may be technical reasons why five minute frequency can’t occur, but at a minimum, I think the issue should be discussed. I see no technical reason, or any reason at all, why ORCA should not be accepted on the monorail.

Ten years is a long time, and a lot can happen (and will happen) in those ten years. Link will reach the U-District, Northgate and Bellevue. With the appropriate improvements, the fastest way from various parts of the city to the Seattle Center (or Uptown) will be on the monorail. During the next several years, we will also be considering improvements to light rail, which include service to Ballard via Uptown. The monorail and a light rail line would compliment each other quite well. It makes sense for the new light rail line to serve the neighborhood directly, and integrate well with buses, while the monorail serves the Seattle Center. It is important, then, that we better use this public asset, and to do so we need to work out a new contract with SMS.

There are three members on the committee, and one alternate:

Jean Godden, Chair (
Bruce A. Harrell, Vice-Chair (
Tom Rasmussen, Member (
Kshama Sawant, Alternate (

I am going to write all four. Given the short notice, I will email the council members. I ask that you do the same. As always, please be courteous when writing your representative. I wish I knew about the situation sooner, as I hate to suddenly throw this issue at them. But transportation in this city is very important, and we need to make sure we take advantage of all of our assets, and this includes the monorail.

3 Replies to “Please Write the City Council about the Monorail”

  1. This was written at the same time as the main Seattle Transit Blog post ( I had no idea anyone was going to write that, or I might have tried to coordinate the two articles.

  2. Thanks for writing this Ross! You are correct that a contract extension and a period to study fare integration is the most likely path forward.

    I agree that the frequency can and should be increased, but I am not sure if the current contract addresses that.

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