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Puget Sound Transportation Projects

Seattle Monorail - Thoughts


Note: this is my own personal opinion on why the monorail failed, based on my experience living in the Puget Sound area for over 31 years, and having lived in Seattle for 4 of those.

The monorail failed for many reasons. Many of the same reasons Sound Transit continues to struggle, why other necessary large projects have failed or are being postponed. The biggest reason, as is usually the case, is money. The project was very expensive and when the numbers were crunched, even by the most optimistic of the Monorail Board's projections, it was going to take far too long to pay off. The problem is, Seattle is rapidly becoming a major city, just like such notorious expensive places as Silicon Valley, New York, etc. Costs, especially for real estate, double and triple here in rapid succession. For a project this ambitious, effectively a monorail system running across the city, billions wouldn't even begin to cover it.

So, we have a necessary project that is going to cost an EXTREMELY large amount to even begin a starter line. Then, we have the second problem: if you tell people that for their large tax increase, you will receive a very short line, in ten years, they won't vote for it. So you use the minimum of your estimates for cost and the maximum for income. I believe costs were underestimated and income was overestimated. When the realities came down, the options selected were to limit the line and increase the funding through questionable means.

The funding method also was questionable at best. By limiting the funding to taxes on vehicle owners in Seattle, they ended up spreading the cost among too few people. Granted, the logic made sense (do you need a car with a monorail-but see the below) but the costs were enormous. For example, I owned an almost 10 year old Jeep Wrangler at the time. Per the Monorail site, my monorail tax alone would have been over $1000 a year. Considering that I was working at Microsoft, a place the monorail was NOT going to, that would have been a lot to pay. And with some of the jobs I have had it would have been impossible. The funding should have also been spread among other means as well.

Plus keep in mind, this is the state that just fought very hard to roll back ALL licensing fees…

As to the car issue, like many projects the assumption seemed to be, when we build this you won't need a car, so therefore we don't need parking at stations…and can fund it with a car tax. There are many flaws with this approach: People won't give up their cars. Even with the cost of gas, it is still very cheap to purchase and operate a car considering the freedom it allows. This is still the (sort of) wide open West. Commuting in your car 30, 40, 50 or more miles to your job is the norm. The systems either are very limited or don't exist to allow that without a personal vehicle currently.

This is a local monorail system; it doesn't take me out of town, to my job outside of Seattle or out of state. Yes, it is possible to not own a car (like in New York), but those places also have EXTENSIVE local and long distance transit systems. In the end, this system was designed more as a circulator within town. Systems like this that have been the most successful (Portland MAX, Vancouver Skytrain and Tacoma Link) have both cross-connections with other transit systems and large parking garages at the ends of the line. I remember hearing one complaint that the end station in West Seattle had no parking. The SPMA said it wasn't necessary as people would "take buses to the station" while the community knew that was the end of any local on-street parking.

Political will and issues. If you look at most of the systems planned, running or under construction, they all MUST run through downtown Seattle. However, that isn't necessarily where the growth (Pierce County) or major employers (Redmond/Bellevue) are. So, rather than making a better, cheaper routing it was sent through the heart of downtown. The elected government was also much more interested in light rail (conveniently with a pre-built tunnel ready to go) than this project.

So what does it all mean?

This means many, many things. For cities like Tacoma, experiencing a renaissance with lots of buildable land downtown and the beginnings of a rapid transit system (Tacoma Link), they should utilize this as a selling point. As to Seattle, they need to find a way to work out their issues and fast. With real estate appreciating at 20-40% per year (pre-2008), and all the land being sold off to remove the tax faster, any type of fixes for their traffic problems will continue to increase dramatically in cost.

In the end there are only a few realistic solutions. Some kind of system (BRT, monorail, light rail, subway) will need to be constructed. It will require funding from many means, probably some type of federal funding as Sound Transit received. Or, traffic will lessen as more companies go under or move away (traffic actually did decline and is less worse than models projected due to the tech collapse of 2000/2001, and the recession of 2008/2009). If this is the case, I hope the will exists to implement a system while costs are down. In the 1970's we had the chance to approve a system that would have run light rail from Tacoma to Everett and over to the Eastside. It was voted down as Boeing, the state's economic engine appeared ready to disappear, and hey, there never will be enough people here to use that…