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:

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

The Historical Context

We continue our coverage of Seattle's monorail plan:


Voter approval of Initiative 41 and establishment of the Elevated Transportation Company was a major victory for monorail supporters But hopes of private-sector financing soon evaporated. We Opinionated Ones know of several suppliers and consultants who would love to build a monorail in Seattle -- with someone else's money.

The Seattle City Council balked at the idea of reallocating funds from existing programs to pay for a feasibility study, and no one took seriously the I-41 provisions mandating bond sales, a tax increase -- or a cutoff of councilmember salaries if they did not follow through. I-41 did not provide ETC with a dedicated funding source, leading to a predictable outcome: in April 2000, the council effectively repealed I-41 and abolished ETC.

Peter Sherwin, an activist and monorail supporter, then founded an organization, "Rise Above It All" to collect signatures for a second monorail initiative. This qualified for the ballot as Initiative 53 This mandated a feasibility study and allocated $6 million to finance it. I-53 attracted a 58 percent "yes" vote in November 2000, resurrecting ETC.

In response to two votes demonstrating, at least, that a majority of voters thought monorail was a good idea and wanted further study, many elected officials turned from skeptics to supporters . However, one obstacle remained: imposing a "local-option" tax increase for monorail construction would require an enabling act by the state legislature. This seemed like a tough sell. However, as part of the compromise that crafted Referendum 51 (a "transportation" financing package for the November 2002 state ballot), the legislature gave ETC authority to impose four different taxes: a motor vehicle excise tax, a motor vehicle license fee, a rental-car tax and a property tax.

MONORAIL FREUNDDAMMERUNG ("The Fall of the Monorail Supporters")

Your Favorite Transit Pundits must confess that we once admired Seattle's monorail activists, who successfully took on and shook up the city's political and transit "Establishment." Unfortunately, they've fallen victim to the classic dilemma facing American populists: success requires working with "the system" -- that is, within the overall political system. That, in turn, requires compromise, tolerance of different opinions, learning to live with defeats and partial victories, and so forth. This dilemma has a particularly wicked twist for populists -- the greater the success, the more urgent the need to work with "the system" lest their influence evaporate. But working with "the system" also tends to cause evaporation of populist appeal and influence.

As much entertainment as the Seattle monorail story has provided (we've laughed hard enough to reveal the location of Line's End, the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal's hidden retreat), the descent of parts of the pro-monorail community into paranoia and cult-like behavior is disappointing.

For example: a monorail advocacy group, Friends of the Monorail, unsuccessfully sued Sound Transit after ST rejected monorail technology. ST took action based on an alternatives analysis, not a plot. (That's AA, not P-L-O-T.) Nonetheless, some monorail supporters saw this as yet another aspect of a huge anti-monorail conspiracy.

(This "conspiracy" must be a huge undertaking indeed. As we've mentioned before, the Japanese-language literature contains absolutely no hint that any additional monorail lines are under consideration beyond the line nearing completion in Naha, a short extension planned in Chiba, and a somewhat longer one planned for Tokyo-Tama. Imagine that -- the "conspiracy" has even managed to squelch Japan's "monorail renaissance." This phrase, as we hope we made clear with our Japanese monorail series, is a figment of some over-enthusiastic monorail booster's imagination -- and it's a safe bet that this person cannot read a single character of Japanese. The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal may include one or more members, one who may read at least one Asian language.)

We Opinionated Ones regard conspiracy theories as the opiate of the lazy (it's easier to be paranoid than critical). We watched with amazement in August as Seattle monorail activists began another petition drive to place the financing proposal on the ballot

"So much for getting along well with others. Rise Above It All (RAIA), the monorail campaign, launched an all-out assault on its (real or perceived) enemies last weekend, when campaign founder Peter Sherwin sent a letter to monorail supporters urging them to 'take to the streets' in support of the cause. The occasion for this momentous call to arms? The Seattle City Council, which at its Monday meeting delayed a vote on the monorail plan until Sept. 9, had threatened to discuss the monorail plan further and possibly even--gasp!--amend it to reflect its concerns about the proposal, potentially the biggest public-works project in Seattle history.

"That didn't sit well with monorail stalwarts like Sherwin, who rallied his troops to go out and gather signatures to force the measure onto the ballot without the input of those pesky elected representatives. 'We have reason to believe that the plan will not be put on the ballot intact,' Sherwin warned supporters in his letter.

"Sherwin says he has no specific concerns but worries that the monorail plan might get put off so long that the council won't have a chance to vote it through before Sept. 20, the deadline for putting measures on the November ballot. 'We
just want to be sure the people get a chance to vote on the monorail plan in November," Sherwin says. In his letter, Sherwin also mentions 'the motives of several members of the City Council.' "

("Take to the streets" . . . "We have reason to believe" . . . "the motives" . . . we hope that skeptical websurfers will click the link above and verify that we Opinionated Ones are NOT making any of this up!]

Although the Seattle council and ETC reached near-total agreement on details, some points of contention remained, including the ballot title (limited by law to 75 words). Some activists "did not trust" the council to complete work in time for submission on the November ballot. The statutory deadline was September 20, and the council postponed a final vote to September 9. Another item of contention: whether to spend $150,000 to build a full-scale monorail structure mock-up in downtown Seattle.

Nick Licata, described as one of the strongest monorail supporters on the Seattle city council, said that "endless questions" from other councilmembers could be interpreted by the public as an attempt to "undermine" the monorail. (So now you know: monomania is not confined to "citizen" foa . . . er, activists . . . )

Hence, ETC and the campaign organization launched a petiition drive. This raised the possibility of two monorail measures on the ballot. This drew the following comment from councilmember Richard Conlin: "If they (the ETC) don't want two measures on the ballot, then stop doing petitions."

But the drive continued

"No mad dogs or Englishmen were in sight yesterday at Green Lake.But the dogged fans of an expanded, people-moving monorail were out in the near-90 degree noonday sun seeking petition signatures to get their fine madness
back on the ballot.


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