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Seattle’s 1-Track Mind Goes Off the Rail

Times Staff Writer

Four times in the last eight years, Seattle’s voters have been asked whether they want the city to build a monorail line, and four times they have said yes.

Now it looks like they will be asked whether they really, really mean it.

Citing spiraling costs, the City Council voted Friday to all but kill the planned 14-mile monorail project by denying street-use permits for it. Then, with just minutes to go before the deadline for submitting initiatives for the Nov. 8 ballot, the city’s monorail authority approved a new measure asking voters to approve a scaled-back, 10-mile plan.

“It’s time for the people to decide whether they want to save the people’s train,” said Kristina Hill, a defiant board chair of the quasi-public Seattle Popular Monorail Authority.

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The authority acted after the nine-member City Council, following the wishes of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, voted unanimously to deny needed permits.

Members said they did so because of huge cost overruns in the projected cost of the line, slated to run from north Seattle, along Elliott Bay, just past the landmark Space Needle, through downtown, past the city’s football and baseball stadiums, and over the bridge into the city’s West Seattle neighborhood.

“It was a great dream, but the facts are in, and it’s time to stop the squandering of millions on pie-in-the-sky projections,” said Councilman Richard McIver. “It’s over.”

Not quite.

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As Seattle Weekly Editor Knute Berger put it: Nickels “didn’t kill the project, but he put a pillow over its face.” Voters, Berger added, will decide whether to “finish the job.”

With swallows-to-Capistrano regularity, the monorail idea has gotten public backing here, then been bogged down in squabbles over just how much it would cost and who should pay for it.

The monorail proposals call for expanding the existing 1.2-mile line that runs from downtown to the Space Needle, which was a futuristic hit when it was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. While the line is still a popular tourist attraction, no one considers it a major solution to the city’s growing traffic congestion.

In an effort to create a transit alternative, voters in 1997 approved exploring creation of a 40-mile citywide monorail system; in 2000 they voted to accelerate planning efforts.

In 2002, a specific piece of the plan -- the so-called 14-mile Green Line -- was put on the ballot. Voters approved creation of the monorail authority, which was directed to raise $1.75 billion to construct and operate the line through a 1.4% annual motor vehicle excise tax.

Opponents, arguing that the full cost would be much greater, put a recall-the-monorail initiative on last year’s ballot, but it was defeated by a wide margin.

Shortly after the authority reached an agreement in June with a private contractor to build the line with 17 stations by 2010, a fracas ensued over its five-decade, $11-billion financing plan.

Although supporters said this was not wildly divergent from the original plan, opponents cried foul. With controversy over high salaries and generous consulting contracts at the board, public sentiment seemed to shift against the monorail.

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The opponents even injected a life-imitates-art element into the fight, citing a 1993 episode of “The Simpsons” (written by Conan O’Brien) in which a con man named Lyle Lanley (voiced by the late Phil Hartman) persuades the town of Springfield to spend a municipal windfall on a monorail. Homer Simpson vigorously supports the system and becomes a conductor, but the system launch turns into a mechanical disaster and Springfield is ultimately left with a worthless piece of junk.

But Seattle monorail supporters said Friday that the problem is not the monorail idea itself, merely the execution of the idea so far.

And Councilman Nick Licata, even as he voted for the resolution denying city permits, said it was “a sad day for not just the monorail supporters, but for all mass transit supporters in the city. I would have loved to see the monorail succeed.”


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