The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal
Monday, October 28, 2002
SEATTLE PART 6: THE CULT OF THE MONORAIL
"It is the unfortunate destiny of the ridiculous to be subject to ridicule."
James Howard Kunstler
From the Cabalmaster:
SEATTLE PART 6: THE CULT OF THE MONORAIL
(or: Where is Jonathan Richmond when we need him?)
The Historical Context
Continuing with our coverage of the Seattle monorail plan:
THE RAIL FUNDS THAT GOT AWAY
Seattle politicians, dissatisfied with the highway-oriented PSRTS, started a parallel planning effort during the early 1960s, financed by the Puget Sound Council of Governments (PSCOG), the regional planning agency. A 1964 report by DeLeuw, Cather & Co., recommended that the new Interstate 90 floating bridge across Lake Washington be designed for a future rail line. In 1965, DeLeuw, Cather recommended a 20-mile rail line, extending from downtown north to Ballard by 1975 and east across the lake to Bellevue by 1985.
Late in 1965, James Ellis called for a comprehensive civic-improvement program, which he dubbed "Forward Thrust." Planning was dominated by a coalition of business and political leaders, and assumed a larger population increase than PSRTS -- 3.1 million by 1990 (the 2000 population was 3.3 million). The revised rail plan included 47 miles of lines within King County, three miles of line serving West Seattle developed initially as a busway, and 24 miles of alignments reserved for future expansion. Capital cost was estimated at $1.117 billion over 17 years. Washington's influential Senators, the late Henry M. Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson, secured a federal commitment to pay most of this amount. A $385 million bond issue -- nearly half of the Forward Thrust program -- would pay the local share. Fares were projected to cover operating costs by 1990.
The twelve Forward Thrust proposals attracted a record-breaking 48 percent turnout at the February 1968 special election. Seven of the programs won approval, but the 50.3 percent "yes" vote for the heavy-rail plan did not meet the 60-percent threshold set by state law.
The post-mortem by campaign leaders included: failure to communicate benefits to low-income voters, competition from highway proposals seen by many voters as a less-costly alternative, and a September 1967 poll which found 64 percent in favor, lulling Forward Thrust leaders into complacency.
Forward Thrust revised the plan to include 49 miles of heavy rail and expansion of the local bus system. The cost rose to $1.321 billion, due primarily to inflation, and the bond issue was increased to $440 million. Meanwhile, The Boeing Co, the area's largest employer, laid off 62,000 workers in 1968 and 1969. The "Boeing recession" set in with full force by the date of the second special election, in May 1970, and the rail plan attracted only a 46 percent "yes" vote. Forward Thrust dissolved itself and the federal funding commitment passed to Atlanta.
Seattleites love to moan that Atlanta built its rail system with "our" money. We Opinionated Ones do not concur. An administrative funding commitment is not the same thing as cash in hand. Furthermore, Seattle would have faced tough competition from Atlanta (and from Los Angeles, had L.A. approved its 1968 rapid transit plan). A sales tax (approved in Atlanta, proposed in L.A.) provides a stronger local-funding base than a bond issue, for the latter tends to be eroded by inflation.
REVOLYUTSII! TROLLEY BUS, DA!, DIESEL BUS, NYET!
A long-simmering controversy over local transit boiled over during the early '60s. Seattle's 125-mile trolleybus system, worked by more than 300 vehicles, was installed to replace streetcars in 1940-1941. The Seattle Transit Commission, which managed the Seattle Transit System, announced plans to dieselize in December 1959. First-stage conversions, postponed until after the 1962 World's Fair, were carried out from mid-1963, slashing the network to less than 50 miles and 125 active vehicles. A tenacious, well-organized opposition sought to compel re-electrification. Seattle voters rejected a March 1964 initiative to reverse the conversions, but trolleybus supporters gained ground thereafter.
STS, which managed to pay off its RFC loan by 1952, began incurring deficits in 1963. This forced the city council to appropriate subsidies. In August 1969, the council imposed a monthly household tax to support transit. The "bus tax" drew strong opposition -- and a petition drive. Voters repealed the tax on November 4, 1969. STS hiked fares the next days, but was forced to back down by heavy political pressure. However, STS two of the remaining trolleybus lines in 1970. Trolleybus supporters, having seen the network sliced to 35 route-miles and 50 vehicles, then went after the transit management. An initiative to abolish the Transit Commission won approval in November 1970, and a new municipal Department of Transportation took over in July 1971.
Victory was sweet but hollow: the problem of how to finance transit operations had not been solved. Continued deficits forced the Seattle council to re-impose the "bus tax" less than a year after voters abolished it. By 1970, the private-sector suburban operators were fast approaching a terminal fiscal crisis. PSCOG commissioned a short- and medium-term plan for an all-bus system, operated by Metro and financed by an 0.3-percent sales-tax increase. This would be matched by state Motor Vehicle Excise Tax funds, replacing the Seattle "bus tax." State and federal gas-tax funds would pay for highway-related facilities (e.g. HOV lanes shared by buses), and federal funds would pay for buses and other capital expenses. This plan drew a 54-percent "yes" vote in King County in September 1972, and Metro took over all transit service within the county from January 1, 1973. Trolleybus supporters placed an initiative on the Seattle ballot to transfer the Seattle system to Seattle City Light, the municipal electric power utility, and require operation of a predominantly electric-powered system. Seattle voters rejected this in September 1972, but Metro -- well aware of the trolleybus initiative -- promised to retain and rebuild the existing network. This was carried out, with all-new vehicles and infrastructure, between early 1978 and mid-1981.
Metro lowered fares, improved service, built park-and-ride lots, and developed express services to major employment destinations. Ridership soared from 32 million in 1973 to 66 million in 1980, and King County voters eventually approved an additional 0.3-percent sales-tax increase for transit. We note that Metro had (and has) an abysmal cost-recovery ratio, less than 30 percent, and also has high unit operating costs (owing in part to extensive use of articulated buses).
RAILS . . . WE DON'T NEED NO STINKING RAILS!
Following rejection of the 1968 and 1970 plan, "rail transit" became the "r word" in Seattle; something to be avoided if at all possible. Politicians and planners managed remarkably well for more than a decade, until the economic stagnation of the '70s and early '80s gave way to a period of rapid growth.
A major highway project, the Interstate 90 floating bridge across Lake Washington, was halted by federal court injunction in 1971. The project appeared dead for several years thereafter: the court rejected the state's environmental-impact study, then banned land acquisition. But local officials rejected "trade-in" of $500 million in federal Interstate funds for alternate projects, and agreed on a scaled-down freeway in 1976. The project survived court challenges in 1979, Carter Administration funding cuts in 1980, and was completed in 1989 with transit and carpool lanes designed for rail conversion.
Metro took up a late 1970s proposal for a downtown bus tunnel after completing trolleybus network reconstruction. Seattle officials objected to underground operation of diesels, hence the plan for "dual-mode" operation. The tunnel plan was selected over a surface transit mall in 1983. Construction was approved by the Metro Council without a public vote; suburban council members pushed the plan through. Construction began in 1986 and the 1.3-mile tunnel opened on September 14, 1990. Cost: $470 million, with 50 percent paid by federal funds and the rest financed by Metro with available state and local funds. The 236 Italian-built dual-mode articulated buses cost an additional $90 million.
The "1980 plan" current at the time of the 1972 vote that put Metro into the transit business contained no long-range elements. Efforts to develop these created controversy in the political class. By 1985, PSCOG concluded that only rail could provide sufficient transit capacity to downtown Seattle by 2020, and recommended inclusion of a three-route- 67-mile trunk network into the Regional Transportation Plan. Some suburban politicians, together with road interests and a remarkable assortment of anti-rail agitators raised objections. So, PSCOG did the proper political thing: it deferred further study and a decision to proceed until "after 1993," when the bus tunnel and the I-90 bridge would be completed.
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