Riding the rail

by Eric Scigliano

(published originally in the SeattleWeekly, December 10, 1997, posted with permission)

Two weeks ago, the monorail initiative that Seattle voters passed last month came as close as it's gotten so far to a public hearing: an "environmental policy forum" sponsored by the UW Graduate School of Public Affairs. Though it had no official standing, the session gave a preview of the (lengthy) debates to follow on the monorail plan and the partly overlapping light-rail scheme already in design by the Regional Transit Authority.

The preview gave a sense of the sort of passion the initiative has aroused among people who aren't transit mavens or partisans'and of the abiding suspicions of the RTA scheme, which offers little evident improvement to Seattle residents. The most ardent speakers were salt-of-the-earth frustrated transit riders.

One promising sign: Incoming City Council member Nick Licata, who supported the Monorail Initiative, spoke most, and most forcefully, at the forum; even the initiative's often-voluble author, Dick Falkenbury, deferred to him. Good thing, because Licata will be in a position to do something about it.

RTA officials, who'd laid low during the campaign, declined to attend. But the pressure's on to bring the two transit schemes together. "We need to look at how we're spending the RTA money," declared Licata, "and to ask how it can be, if not shifted, then [used to integrate the monorail] into the RTA system." He went on to ask the $800-million question: "Do we really need that tunnel, with only two stations" that the RTA plans to dig under First and Capitol Hills for its rail?

Light-rail promoters are understandably loath to revisit that sticky issue, since it raises a basic question about the RTA plan: Is it designed to meet real needs or maximize ridership by poaching routes already well served by some of Metro's most efficient and heavily used services? But hey, everyone wants good numbers.

Trouble is, however essential the RTA judges the tunnel to be for speedy service to the U-District, it could be hell for Capitol Hill and First Hill. How many riders will high-tail it a single stop on each hill, then descend ten or more stories, in order to get downtown? Easier to walk.

Monorail has a surpassing advantage: Unlike conventional rail, it could actually climb those hills. And real service to Pill Hill Hospitals, Seattle U, SCC, and the Broadway strip will require multiple stops. (see map)

The Rainier Valley, which both the monorail plan and RTA rail would serve, offers another apparent instance of duplication. One possible way to make two lines complementary there: Send the rail from King Street Station up Jackson and Rainier and out MLK Way - which can better spare the right-of-way to accommodate it than Rainier - then down to Sea-Tac. Send monorail up Pill Hill to Providence, down 23rd, and out Rainier, where it would present a less intrusive elevated profile, and eventually to Renton.

Riders could switch between them where they cross, by Franklin High. Or acknowledge that elevated monorail suits the valley better and return the rail line to a route considered earlier, down to the Duwamish past Boeing. That would mean fewer riders, but less cost, faster Sea-Tac service, and a boon to SoDo and Georgetown.

Paul Bay, the RTA's light-rail director, also talks encouragingly of integration (or "combinations") of rail and monorail, though he argues it's too late to start rethinking rail lines and alignments already hashed out with "a lot of analysis" and public process. A prime prospect for monorail might be serving east-west corridors: Ballard-Wallingford-University, Greenwood-Aurora-Northgate, West Seattle-Duwamish-Beacon Hill-Rainier.

That's where monorail's superior hill-crossing capability would fill the biggest deficit, thanks to the old glacial carving; the ridgelines, and as a result the current highway and bus systems, run north-south. UW professor/architect Doug Kelbaugh has hammered at this point, and at the shortcomings of Monorail Initiative's big "X" layout (see map). At the forum, he noted that would mean sending the tracks way out on little-travelled cul-de-sacs at the city's corridors. Wouldn't concentric loops, combining nabe-to downtown and east-west service, make more sense? Indeed, concedes Falkenbury: "It would be ridiculous not to be flexible on this." The important thing, he insists, is to get to the four main quadrants, if notcorners, of the city; don't worry, West Seattle.

At least the initiative allows following the station locations it specifies only "generally." Its designation of an elevated system with "rubber tires" may prove more limiting. Newer technologies combine monorail's advantages with the speed and efficiency of steel-wheeled rail: Vancouver's Skytrain, with linear-induction motors, and the "Aerorail" proposed by a Texas company, whose rails would be covered and cushioned to dampen noise and ensure more hillclimbing traction.

But politics count more than technology at this stage. Licata noted the importance of not just what shape the monorail scheme takes, but who does the shaping: "We need people on the PDA [the monorail-building public development authority specified in the initiative) with substantial standing in the business and financial community, so if they say it can goforward it will." On that score, some of the appointments to an interim committee that the City Council's Finance Committee suggested last week look promising. Bill Stafford, the director of the Trade Development Alliance, is a conduit to the business biggies and a veteran City Hall operator. The Bullitt Foundation's Emory Bundy brings hard-won knowledge of, and skepticism about, wishful transit planning; as a member of the RTA's Regional Outreach Committee, he last year delivered a scathing critique of its light-rail projections and economics. Even Falkenbury, who's "a little perplexed at having a committee to decide who's on the [eventual PDA] committee," calls Bundy a "stellar choice."

Licata likewise says Bundy's selection is a boost to credibility. As for funding the monorail PDA's operation, he suggests, "They should look to the RTA - there's a large pot of money there for looking at new technologies. "It seems to me monorail could be a very positive thing for the RTA."

ERIC SCIGLIANO is News Editor of the SeattleWeekly, 1008 Western Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104 Ph: (206) 467-43775; fax: (206) 467-4377