Recluse reflections: Stranger summarizes monorail boosterism
Notes on spaces seen through windows

Thursday, November 17, 2005  
Stranger summarizes monorail boosterism

In the cover story for this week's issue, The Stranger attempts, in its usual misleading way on this subject, to extract some lessons from the failure of the monorail project.

Most of the articles in the feature rehash the half-truths and misrepresentations that have characterized monorail boosterism throughout this long, sad episode. But an article titled "What went wrong" by Erica C. Barnett manages to shed some light on the failure. Unlike the other writers, Barnett found that blame for the failure lies not just with elected officials, but largely with the boosters, staff, and board that tried to build the thing.

The mistake that led to all the monorail's later troubles occurred in late summer 2002, months before the third monorail measure would pass by a razor-thin 877-vote margin, when a financial consultant to the monorail estimated the monorail's tax base at about $4.5 billion.
The monorail's consultant was wrong -- way wrong. But monorail boosters had built the mistake into their initiative and had tied the agency's hands.

"I think a different approach when the revenue shortfall came up could have had a significant effect," says Peter Sherwin, coauthor of the 2000 monorail initiative and campaign manager for this year's pro-monorail campaign. "At the time, they thought they could cut costs [instead of finding new revenues] and get the price of the project way lower." But because the monorail agency didn't want to publicly acknowledge that its error posed a long-term financial problem, it didn't start looking for solutions -- or reach out for help to other government agencies, which were, at that point, relatively sympathetic -- until it was far too late.

Secrecy and an unwillingness to listen to critics became endemic to the agency's board and staff.

Patrick Kylen, a longtime monorail supporter who worked for the Cascadia Monorail Company, the team of companies under contract to build the project, says he understands "why the mayor and council lost confidence: They didn't want to take a risk" on an agency so focused on succeeding that it defended a plan that was politically indefensible.
Some say, with the benefit of hindsight, that had the monorail agency reached out to that political establishment, things might have turned out differently. If the agency had approached the city or state as soon as the 30 percent shortfall came to light, it might have had enough money to move forward without resorting to a financial proposal that relied on junk bonds. "They never really had a good relationship with city hall -- that's something they should have worked on," Kylen says.

Barnett managed to find monorail proponents who recognize that the agency's own mistakes contributed to the plan's downfall, but she could do so only by looking outside the Stranger's editorial offices. Stranger editors Dan Savage and Josh Feit continue to wear their booster blinders and lay the plan's failure at any doorstep outside the SMP's Third Avenue offices.

Savage titles his contribution "Failure of Leadership", but unlike the proponents quoted by Barnett, he's unwilling to admit that the failure lies even partly with SMP and his fellow boosters.

Seattle voters attempted to vote for that solution -- four times -- but Seattle's political class failed to seize the opportunity and political cover that voters offered them.
Except, of course, Seattle's "political class" mostly accepted the deeply flawed and inherently unworkable plan forced upon them by we, the voters. They shut up about it or gave it lip service while the SMP dug itself into deeper holes for its unbuildable elevated train.

In an interview, board member Cleve Stockmeyer offered one of he more ironic lessons:

The monorail was the best thing for light rail. We should have been having joint press conferences announcing that each system enhances the ridership of the other system. There was such synergy here that was never explored.
The articles by boosters Savage and Feit demonstrate the main reason that the potential synergy was never explored.

Even though Sound Transit is building a rapid transit line right now, Savage insists
So, no rapid transit for us. Just slow-moving cars, stuck in traffic. Slow-moving buses, stuck in traffic. Slow-moving light rail, stuck in traffic. Maybe a trolley, also stuck in traffic.

Feit chimes in

Why all the Sound Transit double standards? Where was the finance plan for Nickels's viaduct project? And most important, what was Nickels's mass transit alternative?
That's why there was never "synergy" between the two projects. The monorail's boosters and the dysfunctional agency they created saw themselves as the anti-Sound Transit. Many of the monorail boosters worked to derail Sound Transit's trains through lawsuits and appeals to the legislature.

The boosters didn't' just try to build a transit system for a few Seattle neighborhoods, but they also tried to dismantle a regional transit system that had a better chance from the start of actually being built.

The reason for the "double standard" that Feit complains about lies with the agencies created to run the two systems. Sound Transit recognized that they needed a variety of funding sources and would have to use a variety of different solutions to solve different problems.

Most of the ST system is based on buses which do, indeed, get "stuck in traffic", but they get stuck less often and for less time because of the kinds of relatively cheap solutions like bus-centric freeway changes embraced by Sound Transit.

The light-rail line that they're currently building to connect downtown Seattle with the airport is, for most of its route, the very kind of grade-separated rapid transit celebrated by monorail boosters. Some of it is elevated. Some of it is in tunnels. But a five- or six-mile section in South Seattle is being built in a dedicated roadway at grade. Because it's at grade, trains on that section will, indeed, interact somewhat with traffic at cross streets where signals will be managed to favor the trains over the traffic.

Even though the trains in their dedicated roadway are unlikely to get "stuck in traffic" even in that segment of the line, the at-grade section with its three street-level stations makes the entire Sound Transit line unacceptable to the monorail's idealistic boosters.

But the long process of arriving at the section of at-grade track demonstrates why a "double standard" developed between the two agencies.

Instead of insisting on a single way of building its line in all areas, Sound Transit developed a kind of drawn-out Seattle-process negotiation. The initial plans for a light-rail line released over a decade ago by Sound Transit's predecessor agency (RTA) showed elevated tracks through South Seattle. Neighborhood groups howled in protest, complaining that elevated transit facilities create a blight on the neighborhoods through which they run. RTA went back to the drawing boards and suggested the at-grade line in those neighborhoods.

Different neighborhood groups would later complain again (with help from monorail boosters)about the new at-grade plans. Sound Transit and the City responded to those late complaints with changes to the second set of plans, including an expensive package of neighborhood amenities and mitigation payments.

Monorail boosters insisted on what they regarded as an ideal system. By their own definition, that "ideal" system would have to be built on a network of massive view-blocking and neighborhood-blighting viaducts. From the start, monorail boosters have insisted that a single elevated solution is required to solve all transit problems.

Because they were so focused on a single type of solution and a single transit technology, the monorail agencies never managed to develop the kinds of negotiating skills that Sound Transit relied on to work through problems to find solutions that might not be ideal but were usually good enough to get something built.

Sound Transit's rapid-transit solution is far from ideal. But it is a rapid-transit line that serves many of the region's densest neighborhoods (with the notable exception of First Hill) and is designed in a way that will allow it to serve more in the future.

Politics is the art of compromise which seems to be a skill foreign to monorail boosters.

But even when it did start to make compromises on its ideals, the monorail agency failed to develop the political skills to sell its compromises. The short, stark, open-air, concrete stations that they eventually proposed are an example. Early on, SMP seemed to work with neighborhood groups on initial planning for the monorail stations. But SMP eventually insisted on putting in cheap stations that mostly ignored the plans negotiated with neighborhood groups.

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