Seattle’s monorail project has smashed into the biggest bump in its bumpy history. This is hardly news anymore: the $2 billion 14-mile line will end up costing $11 billion, with $9 billion in interest payments, and the tax to fund it will extend until 2053. City hall and Olympia are, in short, freaking out. Read about it here, here, and here.
There’s good reason to freak out. The monorail financing as it is currently proposed is absurd. HOWEVER, the monorail is not dead yet. And while the financing debacle is more serious than a flesh wound, it should not spell the end of the project. Following, I spell out a few ways to salvage it.
(Full disclosure: I am an unreconstructed believer in the monorail. At its essence it is superior to any other form of transportation in the region. You can read my in principle defense of the monorail at the end of this post.)
- Truncate the line. It’s clearly not cost-effective the build the entire 14-mile green line without additional funding. Lopping off the arm north of downtown would preserve valuable capacity to West Seattle (even more valuable when the $4 billion viaduct tunnel inevitably implodes). It might even be possible to cut out only the downtown section, saving money on the most expensive property acquisitions. Riders could still get from the neighborhoods to Seattle Center or SoDo, close enough to walk to downtown or switch to other forms of transit.
- Raise taxes, or diversify. Why not raise the value-based tax on cars, perhaps extending to brand new cars—an egregious oversight in the current financing? This would shorten the terms of the debt, dramatically reducing the overall cost. Alternatively, the monorail should consider taxing 1) commercial parking (the city has the authority to do this and it has the advantage of both encouraging transit and discouraging driving); 2) cruise ships (surely, Seattleites would love this one. After all, those clueless cruisers will undoubtedly be using the monorail).
- Get government funding. The feds, the state, the county, and the city manage to come up with huge sums of money for all sorts of less worthy projects—the asinine viaduct tunnel, I-405 expansion, the asinine 520 expansion, the South Lake Union streetcar, and light rail, not to mention buses. There’s no reason, in principle, that the monorail shouldn’t be subsidized by government funds.
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Of course, any of these three solutions would legally (and ethically) require going back to the voters yet again. I think that would make it 5 times. There is, however, really no other solution. The monorail’s current plans are bad enough that city leaders should kill the plan. But before they kill something that Seattle’s voters really want, they should make an honest effort at trying to fix the problem first. Remember, the monorail could be a very good thing for Seattle. We just have to figure out how to make it work.
Post-script: Why the monorail is a good thing
- It is funded by a value-based progressive tax on car ownership. It therefore kills two birds with one stone: it both discourages car-ownership and encourages transit ridership. (Also, at present its funding is more congruent with its service area than any other transportation project in the Puget Sound region.)
- Obviously, an elevated train is immune to grade-level congestion and construction. All else being equal, this makes it quicker, more efficient, and more reliable. It is, therefore a more appealing choice to riders.
- The monorail offers something additional that no other form of transit can: unique aesthetic quality. Not only is a monorail an iconic symbol, but the potential views—especially in a city like Seattle—are bound to be wonderful. It’s quiet, sleek, and has a kitschy futuristic quality. (I know that number-crunching planner-types don’t put much stock in this, but aesthetic value really does—and should—matter in our cities.) It is, therefore a more appealing choice to riders.
- Complaints about the shadow-effect of the stations and rails are red herrings. They are belied by the experiences of every city with an elevated train (at least that I’ve ever visited). Areas near el-train stops are usually vibrant, thriving, and dense centers. In fact, developers have already begun inquiring about building up the areas near monorail stations.
- For the last time, it is not argument against the monorail that it won’t reduce city congestion. Nothing will—not road-capacity expansion, not high-speed buses, not light rail, not carpooling, and not even the monorail. Street congestion is here to stay. But it’s an open question whether people will have other options that will allow them to move quickly despite the congestion. A monorail can accomplish this with an efficiency and aplomb that no other form of transit can.
- Also, for the last time, it is not an argument against the monorail that it is not the cheapest way to move people. No one except the pocket protector crowd cares. Seattle voters have consistently volunteered to tax themselves for the monorail (for all of the reasons that I mention here). Just try floating a popular initiative for expanded bus service, the apparent fave of transportation engineers. The point is: the monorail does in fact move people—quickly—it discourages car-ownership, and Seattleites want it here.
- It’s the cleanest and greenest form of transit. Monorails run on electricty, which in Seattle is climate neutral, emitting no net greenhouse gases, and does not contribute to air pollution. You can’t say that about non-electric buses, not even biodiesel buses, or trains.
- Still a doubter? Visit Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is home to one of the few large-scale big-city monorail lines in the world. (Okay, I know it’s not exactly next door.) I’ve ridden the monorail there and, yes, it lives up to all the claims that I’ve made in this post. KL’s monorail is truly fantastic. Seattle’s could be too.