Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Seattle Populists Put Monorail on Fast Track

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Seattle Populists Put Monorail on Fast Track

Article excerpt

It started as the wide-eyed dream of a taxi driver, an unemployed poet, and some of their friends: To solve Seattle's traffic tie- ups, why not expand the city's modest but beloved monorail?

Government experts were busy hatching other plans - an extensive light-rail system and more buses.

Not on the table: Expanding the mile or so of twin elevated rails that, since the 1962 World's Fair, have connected the Space Needle to the downtown retail district. The monorail was Disneyland whimsy, not Seattle's mass-transit future.

That was 1995.

Today, the officially preferred light-rail system still doesn't exist, while the monorail has become a surprising contender for $1.7 billion in taxpayer funding.

A November vote is expected to determine whether this region's penchant for grass-roots activism can overtake its tradition of strong, sober-minded civic planning.

Depending on one's perspective, the initiative either threatens or promises to wrest transit planning from the predictable purview of experts and place it in the lap of naive but responsive ordinary citizens.

"I predict that if the voters approve the monorail and they get it up and running - for two years, without a major scandal - it will revolutionize urban mass-transit in the United States," says Nick Licata, chair of the Seattle City Council's monorail committee.

Maybe. And maybe not.

The debate here comes at a time when many cities around the country are considering light-rail systems, or have already built them. Often above-ground trolleys with overhead wires, these typically cost less per mile to build than traditional rail systems.

Meanwhile, other urban centers are considering monorail systems. One under way in Las Vegas will traverse the casino-laden Strip, and perhaps eventually run all the way to the desert city's airport.

For Seattle, one question is whether the proposed 14-mile monorail, at an estimated $1.7 billion, will be any cheaper per mile than light rail. (Backers say it will be, and would fund it with a car tax of $140 for every $10,000 in car value.) Another question is political: Regardless of cost, will voters flock to the monorail as a rebuff to the region's transit-planning powers that be?

Surprising success

Already, the idea has won impressive, and improbable, support.

By 1997, advocates had gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the ballot ordering the city to build a comprehensive monorail system. Politicians, the Chamber of Commerce, even the daily newspapers responded with a collective yawn, punctuated by a few guffaws.

Come election day, however, 52 percent of the electorate voted to build it. A skeptical Mayor Paul Schell and most of the City Council spent the next couple of years doing all they could to ignore the decision, going so far as to urge the region's fledgling light-rail system to vote against giving monorail advocates $50,000 for planning. …

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