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Monorail (Seattle)

HistoryLink.org Essay 2524 : Printer-Friendly Format

Seattle's twin monorail trains began operating in April 1962 to transport Century 21 World's Fair visitors between downtown Seattle's Westlake Mall and the fairgrounds at Seattle Center. Although extension of the line was frequently discussed, no action was taken until November 4, 1997, when Seattle voters approved Initiative 41, which would have extended the Monorail. But financing problems and rising costs plagued the extension, and after four more initiatives, Seattle voters in 2005 finally rejected the extension in its entirety.

Ticket to the Future

Although monorail technologies have been in use for more than a century, in the public imagination they have always been linked to the "future" of transportation. It was appropriate, then, for planners of Seattle's Century 21 Exposition to include a monorail in their plans for the 1962 World's Fair.

Contracts for design of the system and two flexible, rubber-wheeled trains were awarded to Sweden's Alweg Rapid Transit System in May 1961, and Howard S. Wright was named contractor for the elevated twin rails running above 5th Avenue from terminals at Seattle Center and Westlake Mall. The initial construction cost was $3.5 million, and the trains made their inaugural 1.3-mile runs on April 19, 1962, just two days before the fair opened.

Tracks to Nowhere?

Many expected that the Monorail would be extended after the fair, possibly as far south as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but no concrete action was taken. Regional transit planners preferred more traditional rapid transit trains riding on steel rails, but local voters rejected their proposals in 1968 and 1970.

After the fair, the Monorail was taken over by the City of Seattle and its operation was contracted to Metro Transit and then to a private firm managed by Seattle Center. The line appeared doomed in the late 1980s by plans for development of Westlake Center, but City Councilmember George Benson won inclusion of a monorail terminal as part of the new shopping arcade, which opened in October 1988.

To Relieve Congestion, Take a Monorail

Worsening traffic congestion renewed interest in public transit in the 1990s. A regional rail system was finally approved as part of Sound Transit in 1996, but it did not incorporate monorail technology.

Dick Falkenbury, a long-time political gadfly who earned his living driving a cab and leading city tours, proposed a simple solution: link Seattle's four corners to the downtown via an "elevated rubber-wheeled" system. He, poet-activist Grant Cogswell, and a small band of supporters drafted Initiative 41, which called for construction of a 40-mile monorail system linking Seattle's four corners to downtown Seattle to form a giant "X." The initiative also established a public development corporation, the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC), to raise private financing for the system. The initiative required City action to develop the new monorail network, but did not carry a public price tag or levy a tax.

To the astonishment of many political observers and to the displeasure of monorail critics in the business community and in city hall, Initiative 41 won a solid 53 percent majority on November 4, 1997. After much debate, newly elected Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) and the City Council proceeded to empanel the 12-member ETC board, allocate $200,000 to fund its initial work, and retain Paul Elliott to staff the project. Former King County Council Member Lois North served as the Board's first chair. In 1999, lawyer Tom Carr succeeded her.

Initiatives Galore 

The City Council came close to repealing Initiative 41 in July 2000 (initiatives may be modified or repealed two years after passage), but backed off in the face of public anger. Monorail supporters, led by activist Peter Sherwin, collected more than 20,000 signatures for Initiative 53, which authorized $6 million for a new monorail plan and reserved $200 million in municipal borrowing capacity for its possible implementation. The initiative (as Proposition 2) was approved by a 56 percent majority on November 7, 2000.

In August 2002, the ETC approved a proposed 14-mile Green Line route to run between Crown Hill and West Seattle along 15th Avenue NW to Seattle Center, then through downtown Seattle via 2nd Avenue, across the West Seattle Bridge, then along California Avenue SW to SW Morgan Street. In November 2002, voters narrowly (by a majority of just 877 votes out of 189,000 cast) approved Initiative 1, which called for a 1.4 percent increase on motor-vehicle excise taxes on vehicles registered within the Seattle city limits to help raise the $1.75 billion necessary for the construction of the Green Line, and also created the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (SPMA) to replace the ETC.

But this did not end the battle. It soon became evident that the income from the motor-vehicle excise tax had been overestimated by approximately one-third. Thus, the SPMA was forced to scale back the proposed line. In addition, negotiations were apparently stalled with the Cascadia Monorail Company, the only private bidder for the project. 

Seeing this, individuals and groups who had opposed the project from the beginning collected enough signatures to place Initiative 83, known as the “Monorail Recall,” on the November 2004 ballot. By this time, however, the project had gained the support of many prominent community members and political figures (including Seattle mayor Greg Nickels), and Initiative 83 was rejected by the voters by a wide majority of 63.5 percent. 

End of the Line

 But financing problems continued. A proposed plan (eventually rejected) boosted the cost of the project to, with interest, $11 billion. Mayor Nickels withdrew city support, and in November 2005 yet another initiative -- Seattle Popular Monorail Authority Proposition Number 1 -- was placed on the ballot.

This latest initiative -- the fifth since 1997 -- proposed a shorter, 10-mile route. Voters rejected the initiative by a margin of 64.5 percent to 35.5 percent, thus derailing the eight-year effort to extend the Monorail. 

Sources:
HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Seattle voters approve Initiative 41 Monorail plan on November 4, 1997” (by Walt Crowley); "Seattle voters pass Initiative 53, the second initiative for a Monorail transportation system, on November 7, 2000" (by Alyssa Burrows); “Seattle voters narrowly approve new Monorail while King County rejects Referendum 51 transportation package on November 5, 2002” (by Walt Crowley); “On November 2, 2004, Seattle voters reject Initiative 83, known as "Monorail Recall," by a margin of almost two to one” (by Charles Hamilton); Voters ban indoor smoking, require performance audits, reject dueling malpractice initiatives, and pull the plug on the monorail on November 8, 2005” (by Kit Oldham) http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 1, 2009);  Don Duncan, Meet Me at the Center: The Story of Seattle Center From the Beginnings to 1962 Seattle World’s Fair to the 21st Century (Seattle: Seattle Center Foundation, 1992), 43, 50; The Seattle Times November 5, 1997; Ibid., July 4, 2000; “Final Election Results,” Ibid.,, November 21, 2002, p. A-19; “Election Day: Major Issues and Races,” Ibid., November 3, 2002; ETC Seattle Popular Monorail Plan, August 5, 2002; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 5, 1998, p. B-2; Walt Crowley archives; Elevated Transportation Company Website (http://www.elevated.org/).
Note: This essay was extensively revised on March 13, 2009.


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Special Suite: Century 21 Exposition |

Related Topics: Roads & Rails | Infrastructure | Government & Politics | Fairs & Festivals |

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Click here to play
Riding the monorail on "a trip to tomorrow," in a film promoting the opening of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair
Courtesy MOHAI (Film 1963.3119.145)


1910 visualization of a monorail on 2nd Avenue proposed by the Universal Elevated Railway Co. (but never built)
Courtesy MOHAI (Neg. 83.10.2,219.1)


Brochure for the Century 21 World's Fair Monorail, Seattle, 1962



Conceptual rendering of monorail and the Century 21 fairgrounds, Seattle, 1961
Courtesy Jim Douglas


Life magazine, May 4, 1962



Monorail Station at Westlake Center, 1962
Postcard


Westin Hotel, north and south tower (John Graham Associates, 1969, 1982), with monorail, Seattle, September 2001
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long


Dick Falkenbury, Monorail advocate, Seattle
Courtesy The Monorail Society


Grant Cogswell, 2002
Photo by M. Natkin, Courtesy Preservation Seattle


 
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