For the Monorail: A 1997 Op-Ed by Walt Crowley

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 11/11/1997
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4297

This op-ed piece was written by Walt Crowley after the passage, on November 4, 1997, of Initiative 41, a Seattle initiative that called for an expanded monorail. It appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on November 11, 1997. Walt Crowley, Executive Director of www.historylink.org (this Website), is a journalist and historian, author of Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Seattle, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, and the National Trust Guide for Seattle, among other books. Crowley worked for Mayor Wes Uhlman's administation in the Office of Policy Planning and has been a frequent television commentator. In 1998, he served on the unpaid Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) Board of Directors. He left a few months later to launch www.HistoryLink.org. This opinion piece pre-dates his involvment with the ETC.

Don't Let Would-be Switch Throwers Stop Monorail

A few months ago, I met former Governor Albert Rosellini in his south Seattle office. Admiring his collection of memorabilia from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, which he launched and guided with the late hotel executive Eddie Carlson, I asked how he planned to vote on the initiative to expand the Monorail citywide. Rosellini, still an adept politician at 82, didn’t answer directly but did confide, “Eddie and I always figured it would be extended after the Fair.”

Thirty-five years later, a substantial majority of voters finally gave the green light to do just that. The day after the election, I encountered Jim Ellis, who has spent four decades crusading for mass transit, and asked him what he thought about the vote. He laughed, slapped his forehead, and exclaimed, “Who would have thought the voters would go for it?!”

Well, for one Dick Falkenbury thought so, and more power to him. Every pre-election poll said that 1997 would be the “Year of Transportation,” but only this semi-employed tour-bus driver had the political imagination and courage to offer the public a tangible alternative to gridlock and 55 [actually about 53] percent of voters eagerly climbed aboard.

But what should be a cause for celebration has instead left the establishment grumbling in bewilderment. It can’t work, say the engineers. It won’t pencil out, say the Chamber of Commerce suits. The people didn’t understand what they were voting for, say the self-appointed interpreters of public will. Nonsense. Successful monorails can be found in several cities around the globe, and Seattle’s little train is the only local route that pays its own way with fares.

Far from being a “free ride,” the idea of privately financing such a system is as old as mass transit itself. Seattle’s first streetcar and interurban lines were built a century ago by private entrepreneurs who counted on nickel fares and real estate development along their routes. And every voter who has been stuck in Fifth Avenue traffic while the Monorail rumbled unimpeded overhead knew exactly what he or she was voting for.

Granted, the actual language of Falkenbury’s initiative won’t make the job any easier. He admits that he stitched together this legalistic Frankenstein monster from bits and pieces from other initiatives and laws, and not every suture was sewn tight.

In essence, the initiative creates a quasi-public “Elevated Transportation Company” (ETC) to build and operate an “elevated mass transportation system which will be electrically powered, with rubber tires.” The city government is authorized to fund start-up costs with bonds and a business tax increase, but ETC is supposed to finance itself through fare box revenues and rents charged commercial tenants in some two-dozen stations.

The initiative says the system’s routes should “generally follow” a big “X” from Seattle’s four corners with downtown at the center. Unfortunately, it then dictates the precise location of each station, including one “within 1000 yards of the Fremont Troll.”

Falkenbury also couldn’t resist tossing in a few extra kitchen sinks, like a proviso that would suspend the City Council’s salaries if it fails to fund development within one year of the election’s certification. Perhaps fatally, he omitted a “severability clause” that would protect the rest of the proposition were any part of it invalidated.

But the Monorail plan should not be sidetracked by legal switch-throwers. Rather, City Hall and the Regional Transit Authority should seize this voter-sent opportunity to build a fast, simple “interurban” people mover.

Minimally, we should extend the line south to the new stadiums and RTA intermodal center and north to Lake Union. Paul Allen might be interested in investing in the ETC because the Monorail could promote both his football stadium and development of a Commons-style neighborhood along Westlake.

Speaking of which, two elections on the Commons Park led some voters to wonder what part of “no” did City Hall not understand. Now we might ask the Monorail’s would-be derailers, what part of “yes” don’t you get?

Dick Falkenbury and the voters have given us the way. All we need now is the will.


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