Elevated Transportation Company: Extending the Monorail (Seattle)

  • By Tom Carr
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2534
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The Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) was created by Initiative 41 on November 4, 1997. In that initiative, a 53 percent majority of Seattle voters called for construction of a 40-mile elevated system linking Seattle's four corners to downtown Seattle. It established the Elevated Transportation Company to seek private capital and management. In this People's History essay, monorail advocate Tom Carr describes the evolution of the ETC since 1998, including its struggles with Seattle City government, especially the city's attorney, mayor, and the city council. On November 5, 2002, Seattle voters approved Proposition 1, which created the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (SPMA) to replace the ETC, and gave it the authority to design, build, and operate the 14-mile Green Line monorail as the first line in a city-wide monorail system. In 2005, following cost overruns and revenue shortfalls, Seattle voters killed the Seattle monorail project they had supported in four earlier votes.

Elevated Transportation Company by Tom Carr

The Elevated Transportation Company council is a 12-member citizen board created by Initiative No. 41 (the "Initiative") to implement the terms of that law. The ETC is a Seattle Public Development Authority, similar to the Pike Market PDA and the International District PDA. Of the original 12 members, only one had any significant involvement with the Initiative prior to its passage.

After organizing, adopting by-laws, and setting out an operating structure, the ETC decided to explore whether there was technology available to meet the criteria set forth in the Initiative. Accordingly, commencing in April 1998, the ETC's Development Committee conducted a series of technology briefings. At the conclusion of these briefings, the Development Committee issued a report concluding that the project was technically feasible.

The ETC next decided to explore the project's financial feasibility. No member of the ETC Board had extensive experience in large-scale transportation projects. Accordingly, the ETC retained a team of experts to conduct a "charrette" on the financial issues. The ETC retained Neil Peterson, former head of King County Metro and of the Los Angeles Light Rail system to head a consultant team that would study the project's financial feasibility. Mr. Peterson partnered with Parsons Transportation Group, Lea & Elliott, an engineering firm, Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott, a law firm specializing in large construction projects, and PaineWebber, Inc., an investment bank.

The Charrette team produced a report in December 1998, which concluded that with some initial public investment a system could be built and operated with private money. The Charrette team also recommended that the ETC proceed with a "franchise" approach. Under this model the private partner would be given an exclusive franchise to develop all or part of the monorail system.

Encouraged by this report, the ETC decided to determine whether there was substantial private interest in building a monorail. Unfortunately, we had to worry about money. The ETC's only funding to date had come from a $200,000 grant from the City's emergency fund. This grant money was designated for use during 1998, and any balance was to be returned at the end of the year. At the end of 1998, the ETC had approximately $100,000 remaining from the initial grant. We requested that the Seattle City Council authorize us to use that money in 1999. The City Council did so. It also authorized the ETC an additional $50,000 if it was able to raise $61,000.

Thus, while the ETC was trying to sort out how to build a major construction project, it was also trying to raise funds to keep its single staff person. The ETC developed several plans to provide for funding. First, it had previously been encouraged to seek money from Sound Transit's Alternative Technology Fund. The ETC wrote to Sound Transit seeking to be included in the fund. The ETC encouraged Sound Transit to adopt criteria and met with Sound Transit officials to coordinate their activities. Initially, Sound Transit was to award these funds in December 1999. The ETC and Sound Transit had tentatively reached agreement on a $50,000 grant. Together with funds that the ETC had raised from other sources this would have been nearly enough to satisfy the $61,000 requirement.

Having ascertained that the project was both financially and technically feasible, the ETC decided next to determine whether the private sector had any interest in the project. Accordingly, the ETC issued a Request for Expressions of Interest. This document, which the ETC volunteers drafted themselves, sought input from private companies on the scope of the project and financing options.

The ETC received 14 responses to this request, including responses from Bombardier and Hitachi, the two largest monorail manufacturers in the world. The ETC also received a response from Railsafe, the company that operates the existing Seattle Monorail. The ETC invited all fourteen respondents to come to Seattle at their expense for a follow-up meeting. During these meetings, ETC members inquired about their interest and about what the ETC would need to give them to encourage them to invest in the project.

During the course of these meetings, the ETC learned several things. First, most of the respondents emphasized that the City of Seattle was a necessary party to any such project. In the absence of the City's active involvement, the ETC was cautioned that no project could be built. The ETC also learned that any private partner would expect to receive an exclusive franchise to develop a particular route. Thus, the private entity would have some guarantee that a later participant would not use its work.

Again encouraged by the progress, the ETC prepared and issued a draft request for partners. Included in this document was a provision that each respondent would pay an administration fee of $10,000. The ETC planned to use this money for our operating expenses during the year 2000.

There were two flaws in this plan. First, Bombardier responded that the request for such a relatively large fee demonstrated that the City of Seattle was not behind this project. Second, the Mayor's office, with the assistance of the City Attorney responded with a memorandum stating that the ETC had neither the right nor the ability to issue an exclusive franchise. The ETC decided not to proceed with the RFP until we could solidify our support in the City government.

Toward the end of 1999, the ETC turned its attention entirely to fund-raising. ETC Council members visited every major company in the Seattle area. The ETC sent out a follow up mailing and made telephone calls to each recipient. These efforts raised approximately $5,600. In December 1999, Sound Transit announced that it would not consider applications for the Alternative Technology Fund until early in 2000. This effectively prevented the ETC from receiving that grant in time to meet the City Council's timetable.

At the conclusion of 1999, the ETC retained approximately $23,000 from the original $200,000 grant. This money was to be returned at the end of 1999. The ETC sought a rollover of those funds. The ETC also continued to work on the Sound Transit grant in an effort to provide some funding for work. In January 2000, the City Council, by a vote of seven to one, agreed to roll over the funds remaining for use in the year 2000.

At a January 2000 meeting the ETC Council agreed to ask the City Council to place a provision on the November ballot that would raise funds to do a comprehensive study of the Monorail system. This would be funded by a raise in the levy lid of approximately three cents per thousand dollars of assessed valuation.

The ETC also submitted three different grant proposals to Sound Transit. Each such proposal was a volunteer effort, on which ETC Board members and others spent substantial amounts of their own time. On February 17, 2000, the Sound Transit Finance Committee met and approved a grant of $50,000 to the ETC as part of an initial $2 million package of grants from the Alternative Technology Fund.

On February 18, 2000, the grant proposal went before the Sound Transit Board. Richard McIver, the City Council representative on that Board moved to remove the funding for the ETC. He expressed his opinion that the City Council was "unanimously" against any further funding for the ETC. In addition, Mayor Paul Schell spoke against the grant. This was perhaps the first time in history that a mayor had spoken against a regional body's grant to his city.

On February 24, 2000, the ETC Chair wrote to the Mayor and City Council and requested funding according to the terms of the initiative. There has been no substantive response to this letter.

In March 2000, City Council Members Judy Nicastro and Nick Licata began work on a proposed referendum to place on the November ballot. This proposal would provide for a small levy lid lift to provide between $2 million and $4 million in study funds to the ETC.

On April 11, at a meeting with the Mayor and Council Members Heidi Wills and Richard McIver, ETC council members agreed to work together to build the monorail with the City as a partner. On April 24, 2000, without any prior notice and without any public hearing, the Council considered proposed Resolution 31073, which would have effectively killed the ETC.

Council Member Wills represented that the City Attorney's office had drafted the resolution to head off a lawsuit threatened by an outside attorney. The City Council was reluctant to act so quickly. The City Council deferred action on the resolution until after May 29, 2000.

On March 6, 2000, the ETC council decided that in light of its financial situation, the most prudent step would be lay off our employee and to close our office effective April 30, 2000. Accordingly, as of April 30, 2000, the ETC is without paid staff, an office or telephones. A nominal amount of funds remains in the ETC bank account. This money was retained to meet future obligations including a required state audit of our operations during the year 2000.

On May 3, 2000, David Huber filed a lawsuit against the City Council, the Mayor, and the City Attorney seeking a Court order requiring them to comply with the terms of the initiative. The Honorable Kathleen Learned issued the writ of mandamus compelling the City to honor the iniative.

On May 30, 2000, Ms. Wills placed an indefinite hold on her resolution. At that same meeting, by a vote of four to four, the City Council refused to send to committee a $4 million funding proposal put forth by Judy Nicastro and Nick Licata.

The City Charter provides that the City Council cannot change an initiative during the first two years after passage. Two years having passed, the City Council can, with a simple ordinance, change the initiative and kill the project.


Tom Carr was chair of the Elevated Transportation Company board.

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