A Slightly Less Modest Monorail Proposal

First apologies for the follow up post, I don’t think I can easily fit everything into comments to the original thread. I got some great comments from, Al S, AJ and William C, and Guy on Beacon Hill did some field work downtown! The most pressing question I think is about turn radius. I had envisioned going above, or if necessary taking the small, 60s office building at the corner of 5th and Union (or above the Banana Republic for Pike), but Guy was right, that would still be too tight. While I couldn’t get find the original ALWEG turn radius, the Malaysian trains, which are very similar, have a minimum radius of 70 meters. Not enough for the 5th and Union turn. Should have double checked. However, that lead me to a slightly different alignment which might actually be better in terms of competing with fewer views and presents a rather unique opportunity to leverage a second stranded asset.

Here goes:
Abandon Westlake. The station would have to be rebuilt anyway to make better connections with Link and to fix the unfortunate pinch point where they narrowed the guideways when they built the new station in 88.

Instead turn from 5th on to Olive. This would require going above McGraw Park and the two story BofA building and/or taking it (possibly to create a new station.) This would still offer nice connections to Link and the expanding streetcar system. This would yield a turn radius of 110 meters.

From Olive the line could utilize the space above I-5 to turn to reach either Pine to reach further into Capitol Hill (option A) for an east running route or Boren (option B) to reach the hospitals on First Hill. Again, I think this alignment leave room for the turn.

The Pine street alignment could reach further into Capitol Hill with a stop perhaps at Pine, 16th and Madison where the 7-11 is. From there, it could be extended as far east to 23rd and the down 23rd all the way to the I-90 stop or even Mt. Baker. The turn from Pine to 23rd could be above the City Light marshalling yard, which should yield sufficient radius. Running the line to the I-90 station would be 5.3 kilometers.

Alternatively, the Boren route, suggested by William C would better serve the hospitals and the redeveloped Yesler Terrace. Possible station location could be in the parking lot at Seneca and Boren, or the parking lot at James and Boren. This route, too could be extended all the way to I-90 or Mt. Baker without and a single sharp turn. The Boren route to I-90 would be 4 kilometer. Both extended alignments are here.


Finally, there is the prospect of building a station as part of the Convention Center expansion on the site of the former Convention Place Bus station. First, it would be in the Convention Center’s interest to have a station. Second the city has some leverage now in the permitting stage, especially as the WSCC and the developers want to vacate Terry. Finally, the WSCC has some commitments to Metro as part of the purchase agreement to sustain bus access for a period of time. Perhaps that could be traded for a monorail station? Personally, I think having the Monorail running inside a glass tube above the main exhibition hall would be cool, but there’s obviously a number of way to incorporate the station. Perhaps the abandoned bus tunnel from Convention Place to Westlake could be turned into moving walkways? Perhaps having its own monorail line would reduce the need for parking?

Again thanks for all the great suggestions. Where is the more pressing need, First Hill, or going as far east as possible? Best station locations?

A Modest Monorail Proposal

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.