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I know, I know, I know. Everyone has Monorail PTSD. Even mentioning the M word probably activates the bile duct of half of the STB readership. But consider the future slowly congealing before us. ST3 will prioritize extending the existing lines (completing the spine), then West Seattle, and finally Ballard. The Ballard line will travel via South Lake Union and thus bypass Belltown. At the same time, the the new DSTT will likely stay west of I-5 because tunneling under I-5 (twice) would be difficult, expensive, risky and circuitous. Thus, we confront a future where after a 25 year wait the two densest neighborhoods closest to downtown never get high-capacity transit services. At the same time, passage of ST3 (arguably) exhausts the sales tax bonding capacity. These areas are well suited to transit, and, generally, amenable to further density. Failure to serve these neighborhoods in one of ST’s greatest sins but it’s clear at this point that their mandate for regionalism trumps any cost/benefit analysis or efficacy.

However, the city has existing real and political infrastructure lying around that allow us to serve these areas at reasonable cost and build the dense walkable city we all want. First, we have the existing guideway, service bays and two (recently rehabbed) trainsets running for just under a mile right through Belltown. The Monorail currently terminates on top of West Lake Station which will also be the transfer point for the new Ballard line making it one of the two major rail hubs for the region. Monorails have certain advantages and disadvantages, however the, alignment proposed below utilizes its strengths and minimizes its limitations. First, monorails have smaller, lighter guideways than rail and is relatively quiet. In a post-ST3 world going elevated may be the only way to get high-capacity transit to areas not covered by ST3 and if we’re going elevated, then monorails the integrated guideway and loadbearing structure probably dominates in terms of construction cost and installation. Second, because the guideway can be precast and hoisted into place, they make it better at spanning existing infrastructure (like I-5) but also run above existing buildings. Finally, because of the rubber tires monorail can climb steeper grades to reach the heart of Capitol Hill and are relatively quiet. The major limitation of monorails are cumbersome switches that would entail some operational limitations to branching. However, this proposal is of limited ambition, where the monorail largely serves to augment link and would not require many additional switches.

Here’s a draft alignment that would connect four dense residential areas: lower Queen Ann, Belltown, First Hill and Capitol Hill with the existing the Green and Blue lines and the downtown core:

A rough map is available here:

head SE from Westlake on 5th for 2 block.

  • turn East on to Union.
  • new station on the north side of Freeway Park incorporating existing elements of the Convention center. This would activate a somewhat isolate area and create new connectivity across the Freeway. Also the monorail would, arguably, complement the park’s existing Brutalist architecture. This location could service much of the hospital district.
    Station at Union, Madison and 12th where the Pony bar is now.
  • Finally, build an in-fill station on the existing line in the vicinity of 5th and Bell.

Obviously a lot of riders will be transfers and it still won’t be that long, but it’s a lot of connectivity for 1.25 miles of guideway and three new stations. It would require exactly one taking for the eastern terminus. Everything else is existing infrastructure or public property. It would leverage a lot of otherwise stranded assets.

It would reach 4 distinct neighborhoods, two of which are skipped my heavy-capacity transit altogether. It would connect to existing and planned transit investments including Link and the streetcar at Westlake and Madison BRT on the east end. The Las Vegas Monorail cost 160M per mile for an entirely new system. Even assuming some cost for inflation and the Seattle Way (TM) wouldn’t 200M be in the ballpark? That just happens to be the amount that ULink came in under budget. For effectively 4 new stations! And not just any stations, but some of the most transit friendly and thus productive in the city!

If this initial segment proves successful it could also be expanded incrementally,  running further east to 23rd and then south on 23rd to the I-90 Link station. It could also be extended through the Center up to the base of Queen Anne. When we look at effective transit systems in the world, they tend not to be ones that reach deep into the suburbs. Instead they offer a dense grid/lattice/network of lines in a relatively small area. Paris or Barcelona are probably the best examples. Extending the existing monorail is an affordable way to build out that grid within the urban core.

20 Replies to “A Modest Monorail Proposal”

  1. How about something more updated and “futuristic” like Personal Rapid Transit PRT. For example, SkyTran claims costs on the order of tens of million per mile. These systems have been shown to scale to tens of thousands of daily riders in India. They can cover an “area” as opposed to just “lines.” Due to the small distances and (claimed) low costs, it could probably be done with all local funds.

    1. There are only 5 PRT or GRT systems in operation, and 28 technologies the conceptual stage. skyTran is one of the latter. None of the functioning systems is in a large city center like downtown Seattle and been deemed successful enough to expand. Seattle is not rich enough to spend money on an unproven technology, not when we can’t even get political approval for light rail between Ballard and UW or the “Metro 8 line” or to Lake City or Renton. PRT’s capacity limitation make it suitable for a suburb, outskirts of a city, small university town, or airport, but not something as substantial as the #8 Denny Way commute. When it approaches its capacity limit its reliability falls precipitously, akin to “bus bunching” and pass-ups. PRT requires an “all or nothing” investment: you can’t just throw down a cheap track like the SLU streetcar and expand it later, or if it doesn’t succeed just sell the cars to another city and dig up the track. You have to install proprietary elevated guideways and stations, enough of them to make a PRT network useful. You’ll have to get support from the adjacent business owners, who usually hate elevated anything. That’s what did in the monorail: the business owners on 2nd Avenue didn’t want people looking in their third-story windows, didn’t want to look at an elevated track, and didn’t want it displacing their street parking, so they pursued campaign after campaign against the monorail until finally with the fifth vote and lucky-for-them financial problems it died. If they hadn’t campaigned against it so persistently, the revotes wouldn’t have happened.

      Extending the Alweg monorail makes more sense because the city owns the design, doesn’t have to pay patents to anybody, and the monorail’s reliability and impact in downtown Seattle is known.

      1. Got it, didn’t realize skytran was more of a conceptual system. I can see the hesitance to be the first city to “go all in” with PRT when there is already an existing technology with known reliability and results–although with a somewhat tainted history. I do agree though with one of the comments below that any new or re-imagined monorail should be automated and driverless.

        I’d be interested to see whether Delhi’s “Metrino” system ever succeeds where many have failed: (latest news I found from December, it was delayed for safety concerns, so…). It claims a peak capacity of 30K/hr, cost of $128M for 13 km, and construction time frame of one year–pretty impressive if it does indeed happen. True, it will be a “suburban” line, but that’s “suburban” for a metro area population of 20 million!

        Who knows, if “City Center Connector” streetcar is a success there may be an argument for the SDOT doing a third line, possibly a loop, through Belltown? (I know, this idea is “way out there.”)

  2. Interesting idea. Two concerns, though:

    First, station location. We need to focus on bus integration. Your 12th Avenue station has decent access to the 2 and 12, and it’s also along one possibility for an eventual north-south route… but that should be decided before we build this. However, I’d move your Freeway Park station a bit to Boren, where Metro’s LRP runs a frequent bus.

    Second, costs. Extending the monorail would mean more trains to maintain frequency (could new trains be interoperable with the old ones?) and switches (which are slow and expensive for monorails). Also, I’ve heard that touching the old tracks would mean instantly needing to upgrade them to modern standards (is that budgeted)?

    This’s an interesting idea to get grade-separated transit to Capitol Hill and Belltown, but it needs a little more development before I’d support it.

    1. The track has already been touched: in 1988 the south end was relocated and the track moved for the current really awful rails too close together to allow cumbersome boarding situation.

      My understanding is that the primary need to change is some form of emergency escape. Should be possible to come up With a platform grating similar to a fire escape between the rails.

      1. 1988 was pre-ADA, which is where the concern lies. I think the bus tunnel retrofit in 2005 also fell under ADA requirements, so it’s probably right to be concerned about it.

  3. I think your concept is worthy of debate. I also don’t think that this notable light bulb has yet sunk in: Not only is the Westlake to Capitol Hill segment forecasted to become the most crowded Link segment (and it may now be in that spot already), but ST3 does nothing to address overcrowding on it — even with an expensive second Downtown tunnel. A new direct Capitol Hill connection will eventually be demanded.

    One additional design element: If Westlake is put in the middle of the line, that station would also have to be redesigned or slightly moved.

    Given the historic nature of the monorail vehicles and the coming redundancy of the NW/SLU/Ballard Link line and the eventual need to replace the structure, it may be worthwhile to just simply move the monorail. Would a slightly different alignment be appealing? Would building this envisioned extension allow for us to keep the monorail open when time comes to replace the existing elevated structure?

    Finally, I’m not so sure that Union Street would work very well. It depends on steepness as well as compatibility with the many residences which are in the high-rise buildings along the street. It also seems much narrower than Pike Street.

    Still…. keep thinking out of the box!

    1. If you are going to move the monorail, you might as well build an entirely new one to take advantage of the latest technology, in particular self-driving vehicles.

  4. This is a fun idea, but I think this is a classic idea of picking the mode and then picking the alignment. The corridor, Uptown/Belltown to Pike/Pine, seems much better served by bus. If we are going to throw $200M at this problem, I think another Madison-esque BRT line is a better mode.

    And I think William C is right – I don’t think the Monorail is an asset that can be leveraged as existing infrastructure to save money. If we are going to build fully grade-separated transit downtown, I’d rather build a totally new system than to graft something on to the monorail.

    The monorail is still super-useful and can be better incorporated into the regional system (ORCA, please!). However, once the ST3 station opens in Uptown, I think the monorail will have reached the end of it’s operational life and will be taken down (or converted to the next High Line?)

    1. Good point. One of the reasons that a gondola is an intriguing idea as a connection between Capitol Hill and South Lake Union is because there is little hope for a decent bus connection. The only street that goes through — Denny — is maxed out, and you can’t really expect to take a lane. In this case, Pike/Pine are both one way streets, which means you can “spread the pain” and take a lane in both directions. As of the picture on Google, ( one of the lanes on Pike is impassible because of construction, yet it is no big deal. There are some bus only lanes on Pine, so the idea of something to the level of Madison BRT (very frequent, with level boarding, off board payment and enough grade separation to move very fast) seems quite plausible.

      There are advantages to a surface based system. The connection between Link and the monorail could use improvement (and this project would be part of that) but you still have a deep bore tunnel to elevated connection, which will take a while. When you consider that this is mostly for a short trip, it doesn’t really add up. For example, a trip from CHS to Westlake, and then to the monorail just doesn’t make much sense. You are probably better off slogging along on the 8, or just walking a few blocks.

      I applaud the creativity, but I think the money would be better spent on better bus service. Like it or not, it is likely that we will have to deal with nothing but bus service for much of the town — even in areas like Belltown and First Hill — for the foreseeable future. We need to figure out how to get them to work together, as well as work with Link (which will be a huge challenge). The Move Seattle set of BRT style improvements are really a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. We will need to spend a lot more before things get much better.

      1. ” One of the reasons that a gondola is an intriguing idea as a connection between Capitol Hill and South Lake Union is because there is little hope for a decent bus connection. The only street that goes through — Denny — is maxed out, and you can’t really expect to take a lane” – I think the best bus option there is to build a bus-only bridge on Thomas or John over I5 and pull the buses off of Denny completely

  5. 1) As discussed in the first post, it looks like we’ve lost the tunneling option both to regional budget politics, but also to civil engineering and geology. So that leaves elevated. Given that, what’s the best option for elevated transit. For a large, city-wide system an automated technology like Skytrain would be attractive. But, Skytrain is expensive, physically more imposing and would of course require all the new fixed cost infrastructure, maintenance facility, guideway to reach that facility, which itself might be difficult to site. It would also be proprietary which was one of the concerns that sunk the last monorail proposal. We could also build an elevated structure for Link, but that too would be evening bulkier and perhaps difficult to connect with the existing lines. Perhaps, as I proposed before, a line running from the I-90 station at 23rd? In either case, it’s not clear where the money for such lines would come from.

    So here’s the appeal of extending the existing monorail. Even with the addition of catwalks, the monorail is a smaller, less imposing structure. That’s the underlying appeal of the technology.

    It’s also a known quantity. So at least for the existing guideway, it avoids the loss-aversion and NIMBYism that makes siting a new elevated structure so difficult. In addition, the appeal of the alignment I’m proposing, (or Pike) is that it occurs in the immediate vicinity of the angle shift in the street grid along Olive way and further east along Union. This is still another source of surface congestion, but in the context of extending the monorail, it’s actually an opportunity. One objection to the last monorail proposal and presumably any other elevated structure is that it would destroy view corridors. However, at the angles in the grid, those views end anyway. And the view down Pike is already ruined by the convention center bridge. So the Union alignment, with exception of what it does to Union itself, at most for-shortens existing view corridor by two blocks. For much of the city it should be invisible.

    2) Would we need additional trainsets? I’m not sure. The current line typically only operates 1 train at a time and requires 2 minutes to cover ~1 mile distance. Top speed is 45 mph, so some of that’s acceleration/deceleration. Adding 3 stations with 60 seconds dwell times each and 1.25 miles of guideway to reach Union and Broadway suggests an end-to-end run time of ~8 minutes. So running both trains would yield 8 minute headways and a capacity of 3375 boardings per hour (450 people/train x 7.5 trains/hour). For context, Westlake center is only expecting 8700 daily Link boardings a in 2020. Still, if a new trains were required, Seattle owns the designs. We wouldn’t be hostage to a particular manufacturer. Malaysia recently build Alweg trainsets that could be quite affordable.

    3) is the north end redundant given that there will be a Seattle Center stop on Link? I’m not sure. It certainly bypasses Belltown. And we don’t know where it will access the Center yet. Still were they to share a station, would that be redundant or would that go toward building a dense transit grid by creating a north running hypotenuse to the Ballard Link triangle? Would an earlier connection to the monorail take some pressure off of Westlake station?

    4) Yes, Westlake would have to be rebuilt to improve the connection with Link.

    5) Can it handle the grade? The rubber tires can handle more grade than rails, and the line could begin to climb well before the Freeway Park/Convention Center station, but there are limits to what passengers might find comfortable. On the other hand, it’s exactly because of the grade that transit is so useful here. The natural walkshed is reduced because it’s unpleasant to climb the hill.

    6) If the monorail could rise above or below the Pike Convention Bridge and use Pike, that might be easier. Great suggestion.

    1. I was downtown today and I walked through the Convention Center area to figure out where the station and guideway could be built. I didn’t see any obvious path or site that could be easily built without enormous cost.

      I’ve also tried to construct a timetable for the route and I figured it would take 6-8 minutes for a train to run end-to-end, depending on routing. One big concern would be the 90 degree turn from 5th Ave to Union (or University or Seneca). I don’t think the Alwegs are built to take sharp turns and 5th Avenue is pretty narrow south of Westlake. Is there sufficient width on 5th Avenue to build a guideway that can make a 90 degree turn at that location?

      Can we rely on the existing Alwegs to provide all-day service or do we need to invest in new rolling stock? If the end-to-end trip time takes 6-8 minutes, with both trains operating, peak hour service could run every 10 minutes if the trip takes 6 minutes. If the trip takes 8 minutes, that only leaves 2 minutes for off-loading, security check and re-boarding at each terminal. Off peak service with just 1 train running could be provided every 20 minutes while the other train is being serviced. If we want shorter headways the plan will have to be revised because only one train can be on each line at one time.

      1. What was the plan for that with the old monorail expansion, though? Weren’t they planning on switches – couldn’t we use them too, at least at the ends, to make the double-track sort of like a circle allowing an indefinite number of trains?

      2. The easiest way to allow more trains to operate would be to build balloon tracks at each end of the line. There would still need to be a maintenance facility and a switching system to allow trains to enter and exit the system but balloon tracks would allow the in-service trains to operate almost continuously.

        The 1962 system was originally designed to run between Elliott Way and downtown Seattle, but for some reason the system was shortened to run only between downtown and the Seattle Center. There also was a proposed personal transit system that was basically an elevated conveyor belt system that would have had several access points between downtown and the Center. The conveyor belt system was clever, but it had a lot of moving parts and I think it would have required constant maintenance and monitoring. It probably would also have been scrapped many years ago.

      3. If there’s sufficient demand to support shorter headways I would put a switch at the Capital Hill Station. I’m not a fan of loops. Yes the switches are bulky and a bit slow, but 1 at the end of line shouldn’t be too taxing. And, should it fail, that would just mean going back to 2 trainset operation.

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