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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Monday, October 28, 2002


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

From the Cabalmaster:

(or: Where is Jonathan Richmond when we need him?)

The Historical Context

Continuing our coverage of Seattle's monorail plan: This story has so many comical, wacky and just plain bizarre elements that we wonder: just how many of you, away from Seattle, believe any of this? (But hey, we do provide the links!)

We've already mentioned how the King County Executive, Ron Sims, has angrily likened monorail supporters to a "cult."

In response, some monorail supporters now reportedly joke with each other:

"Drink the Kool-Aid!"

No, we didn't make that up; see; see also

Perhaps Jonathan Richmond, famed for "Theories of Symbolism, Metaphor and Myth," could explain it all for you. (Well, maybe not . . . Dr. Richmond seems to have an obsession with "dissing" conventional rail transit, particularly in Los Angeles.)

Don’t get us wrong. The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal recognizes Seattle for several remarkable achievements in urban transit history:

--The most successful "freeway revolt" in U.S. history outside of San Francisco.

--The best-organized, most tenacious, savviest and most successful "grass-roots" effort to retain electric street transport, against the wishes of a management determined to dieselize.

--Perhaps the best-organized, most tenacious, and (we admit) savviest rail opponents in the U.S.

Let's go back . . . way back (see; see also

Once upon a time, Seattle had a privately-owned transit system. Then, the city built two municipal streetcar lines to serve outlying areas. Poor service created pressure for municipal ownership of the rest of the system, and this was carried out -- in 1918! San Francisco's Muni was first major municipal transit system in the country (although public funds were used to build subways in Boston and New York). The Seattle Municipal Street Railway was "number two."

Municipal ownership seemed like a good idea -- so good that the city willingly paid -- with voter approval -- an inflated price for the privately-owned streetcar system. Thus, the system was burdened with a large amount of bonded debt. A 1922 decision by the state Supreme Court forbade the city from using any funds other than fare revenues to service the debt. By the 1930s, Seattle streetcars were 'rusting, battered hulks" in the words of transit historian Harre Demoro, and the photographic record makes clear that most trackage was in a similar state.

Rapid transit had been mooted for a long time. Civil engineer Virgil Bogue drafted what would have been Seattle's first comprehensive urban plan, including a large Union Station at the south end of Lake Union, and a rail transit tunnel beneath Lake Washington between Seattle and Kirkland ( However, voters rejected the "Bogue Plan" in 1912.

A mile-long wood trestle for streetcars was built along Railroad Avenue (now Alaskan Way) at the end of WWI to speed transportation of dock workers. A 1926 proposal by the Planning Commission outlined a mostly-elevated line with a downtown subway, but this idea did not advance.

A civic controversy over streetcar replacement erupted during the 1930s. The operator's union and some members of the public wanted modernization with PCC cars, while most politicians favored trolleybuses. Voters twice rejected bond issues to finance trolleybus conversion. Some old Seattle hands argue that this demonstrated popular support for rail retention. More likely, given the results of other bond proposals elsewhere, was voter resistance to increased government expenditures. In any case, the Mayor secured approval from the state legislature to secure a Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) loan. This was used to refinance the old Municipal Street Railway debt and pay for the trolleybus conversion, carried out in 1940-1941.

Seattle officials attempted to persuade the state highwaymen to build freeways with medians wide enough for rail lines. Although unsuccessful, this effort stirred public interest in regional transit planning. The Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study was started in 1960, when the four-county metro area had 1.5 million people. PSRTS, which was directed by state highway officials, projected -- correctly -- that the population would reach 2.75 million by 1990. It recommended a comprehensive network of freeways and expressways (but you guessed that, didn't you?). It predicted that transit demand outside of Seattle would be "insufficient" for anything other than buses (betcha guessed that, too!).

This study was supported by a data-collection and analysis effort of a scale not equaled since. However . . .

The plans outlined in the PSRTS Final Report of 1966 did not advance. Except for a few short segments, none of the recommended freeways or expressways were built. Instead, from the 1950s, Seattleites staged a series of anti-freeway campaigns. By the mid-1970s, public pressure and lack of financing spelled cancellation for 150 miles of freeways planned in King and Pierce counties. During the height of the "freeway revolt," Seattle voters rescinded financing previously approved for two major projects. However, vehement opposition to freeways did not lead automatically to a strong pro-transit movement. (In Portland, it took roughly five years following the 1975 cancellation of the Mount Hood Freeway to build a consensus in favor of light rail.)

Toronto received North America's first "metropolitan" government in 1953, inspiring efforts to create one for Seattle. An advisory committee led by attorney James Ellis convinced the legislature to authorize creation of "metropolitan municipal corporations." King County voters narrowly rejected such a plan, for a "Metro" including transit operations, in March 1958. Later that year, a second proposal for a "Metro" limited to sewage treatment and water supply, was approved. The "Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle" ("old Metro") was not really "regional;" it was a special district including all of King County. It gained prominence and prestige for its successful effort to clean up Lake Washington. Another advisory committee, also led by Ellis, worked to give Metro authority for rapid transit planning and development. Voters rejected this idea in September 1962; it's interesting to note that suburban voters were in favor but Seattle voters were not.

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