The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

Informed but opinionated commentary and analysis on urban transportation topics from the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Our Mission: Monkeywrench the Anti-Transit Forces

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Tuesday, October 29, 2002


"It is the unfortunate destiny of the ridiculous to be subject to ridicule."
James Howard Kunstler

From the Cabalmaster:

Continuing our coverage of Seattle's monorail plan:

It's definitely the water, and who knows what else. Well . . . maybe not.

The Seattle chapter of the League of Women Voters endorsed the monorail early in August. Then, two months later, the League took the rare step of withdrawing its endorsement and changing its position to "neutral"

As we reported earlier, one of the points of contention between supporters and opponents was the ballot title; Early in October, a King County Superior Court judge ordered most of the changes sought by opponents, who described the original title as vague, misleading and inaccurate

In mid-October, former Seattle mayor Charles Royer announced his opposition to the monorail Royer, who was Seattle's mayor from 1978 to 1989, said the plan was too costly and would complicate efforts to secure funding for other needs, such as replacing the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct.

In an October 13 editorial, the "Seattle Times" expressed its opposition to the monorail A cartoon in this edition ("We support the monorail because . . . we're nuts") is priceless; unfortunately, it's not available online.

The "Seattle Post-Intelligencer" endorsed the monorail on the following Sunday, October 20. To some extent, this was probably a shot at the "Times." For those websurfers not familiar with Seattle, the two papers have a "joint operating agreement" . . . and the fact that the two publishers despise each other is well known.

Y'know, in the midst of all this monomania, wouldn't it be funny if the existing monorail suffered a breakdown . . . like a flat tire?

It's already happened. Three times. Within ten days. (No, no, no, a thousand times no, we are not making this up!


One of the most striking aspects about the local media coverage is the unstated assumption that monorail is, like, well . . . a transit version of "Westworld," where all your commuting fantasies come true and nothing can ever go WORNG . . . (use alternate transportation if the monorail operator bears any resemblance to Yul Brynner).

Or, as an FOC, frustrated with the lack of critical investigative reporting, puts it: ". . . an ostensibly brain-dead, fawning entourage of journalists applauds the ETC's facade of "openness" and treats their claims as unassailable scientific

Ya sure, ya betcha!

Websurfers accustomed to the likes of the "New York Times" the "Los Angeles Times," or "60 Minutes" might consider the following observation by a long-time "Emerald City" resident:

"Seattle has no tradition of investigative journalism."

(So now you know.)

Seattle residents probably see this failing as . . . hey, no problem . . . but we'd like to hear ETC's answer to an occasional tough question. For example: if revenues fall short of projections, where would the necessary operating subsidy come from?

Another matter: a group of FOCs have checked ETC figures, and have found that ETC's adjustment of annual operating cost estimates from 2002 to 2020 implies an annual inflation rate of 1.5 percent. This, if true, is unrealistically low. Another issue: "extremely low" allowances for administration and contingencies in cosnstruction-cost estimates. Yet another issue, spotted by a sharp-eyed FOC: ETC appears to have underestimated its power costs by half. These are the sort of issues that reporters in New York, Chicago or L.A. would dive into. Not in Seattle, though.

Media coverage, letter writers and talk shows give the impression that Seattle residents have a very low threshold of tolerance for "real world" delays, cost escalations and other problems associated inevitably with billion-dollar public-works projects. If so, then Seattle has no business building anything larger than a one-room schoolhouse with public funds.

Local media have had a field day playing "good transit, bad transit:" monorail v. the "other" transit project in town -- Sound Transit's Central Link light-rail project. Here's some typical rhetoric:

"Given its history of botched designs, flagrant cost overruns and a tin ear for politics, the last thing you'd think Sound Transit would want is another audit.

"You could think that, but you'd be wrong."

"Monorail or light rail? It's a duel," proclaimed an early August "Seattle Post-Intelligencer headline The "kicker" read, "Are the monorail and light rail systems on a collision course?" Ha, ha.

The primary issue is not dueling personalities, "tension from old battles," or light rail advocates "saying bad things" about the monorail (Seattle media love to run such stories). It's not even the suitability of one mode or another for Seattle. It's the money, stupid.

ETC and Sound Transit plan construction in a different corridor, so monorail and light rail are not directly competitive. Local media remarked that Sound Transit loaned software for ridership projection to ETC, but no surprises here -- ETC and ST are public agencies, and ST could hardly refuse this type of cooperation.

There is very little chance for substitution of monorail for light rail in the "Central Link" corridor, where various modal alternatives have already been considered. There's an even slimmer chance for substitution of light rail for monorail in the Crown Hill - Ballard - downtown - West Seattle corridor, owing to lack of available rights of way. A mass transit project would have to be built in tunnel, on viaduct -- or on the surface. The latter idea is rejected out of hand by many Seattle businesses and residents, fearing loss of on-street parking.

Local media note that both monorail and light rail have been "approved" by voters. Yeah, right. Voters have approved local financing for regional express bus, commuter rail and light rail -- but not for monorail. Monorail may never die, but without financing, it will just fade away. The tax proposals are separate -- Sound Transit's was approved in 1996. However, light rail and monorail supporters both anticipate future competition for funds, including federal funds.

"Seattle Times" guest columnist Walt Crowley characterized monorail and light rail supporters' view of each other s pet project:

"A bureaucratic boondoggle concocted in the back room of the Rainier Club."

"A populist pipe dream scribbled in the backseat of Dick Falkenbury's taxicab."

"That pretty well sums up the high esteem in which supporters of the monorail and Sound Transit hold each other."

"Such views are now expressed mostly privately, although the current sotto voce sniping threatens to explode publicly in the coming debate over funding monorail construction." (Crowley, who was a consultant to the 1996 Sound Transit campaign and served on the ETC board in 1998, favors both light rail and monorail.

For those who find transit duels just a tad too violent, the P-I ran a "Monorail v. LRT Q&A" in mid-October (Remember, this is the "P-I," which has endorsed the monorail, so you might want to check anything you quote from this article!)

One of the many technical issues raised by various FOCs is the need for "drip pans," identified by Parsons Brinckerhoff engineers as a potential liability issue. A monorail occupying a public right-of-way (e.g. a street) would need some form of shield to protect people below from being hit by falling water, oil or debris.

A mid-October "Seattle Times" article featured a possible "model" for the Seattle monorail, in a city not too far away -- Vancouver, BC. No, Skytrain is not a monorail, and no, we didn't make this up:

"Like a monorail, the SkyTrain combines mountain views with the pleasure of looking down on gridlocked drivers. High-rises have grown up around the stations, boosting the clientele and reducing regional sprawl. TransLink, the local public transportation agency, says the original line now covers its own operating costs, a rarity in North America.

'The good news is that elevated transportation generally works,' says Dick Falkenbury, the cab driver who founded the populist monorail movement in Seattle."

(The only problem, Dick, is that "elevated" describes an alignment configuration, NOT the technology that operated on this alignment. Now please explain the cult-like fervor over technology?)

Meanwhile, down Tacoma way, there is considerable interest in a short extension to the new 1.6-mile streetcar line (scheduled to open in fall 2003 The Puyallup Tribe of Indians is preparing to build a new casino near downtown Tacoma. Municipal and tribal governments are cooperating on a plan to extend the south end of the line 1/4 mile east from the maintenance base, on East 25 th St, to Portland Avenue. The tribe has agreed to pay half of the estimated $25,000 cost of a feasibility study, and might consider paying part of the construction cost, depending on the study outcome.

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