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Seattle's Monorail Plan: Transit Miracle, or Urban Toy?

By Light Rail Progress • October 2002 (Rev. January 2003)

Note: Since our original posting of this article, the Seattle ETC Green Line monorail referendum passed by an exceedingly razor-thin margin of 877 votes out of a total of over 189,000 votes cast – amounting to a slim 50.2% majority. implementation of the project is under way (as of January 2003), and construction is expected to begin in mid-2004. in the prediction of one monorail critic, the Seattle monorail project is destined to become "the national poster child of what not to do in urban transit"; Light Rail Progress and this website will continue to follow the Seattle monorail project with interest. Meanwhile, the Monorail Society and various proponents of monorail technology have begun to exhibit considerable irritation over the factual information on monorails presented in various articles on the Light Rail Now website. Monorail Society head Kim Pedersen in mid-January 2003 laid claim to two photos used in the article below, and has demanded they be removed (although they were obtained from public-domain sources). We have complied, substituting other photos and modifying the text accordingly. However, we find it curious that Pedersen would intervene to obstruct photographic documentation which presented a flattering view of the existing Seattle monorail and an informative view of a switch on the Newark monorail. For our part, we will continue our efforts to provide reliable data, both textual and photographic, on various transportation issues, including material which calls into question the extravagant claims of proponents of other transport modes.

While Seattle has been proceeding toward the installation of a new light rail transit (LRT) system, there has also been local interest in a monorail system. Indeed, since 1962, Seattle has had a short monorail shuttle line, approximately a mile (1.6 km) in length, one of the few monorails actually in urban revenue service in the USA (see photo above). The monorail connects two popular tourist attractions, and thrives on considerable tourist ridership. Now, Seattle is moving toward the possible installation of a brandnew, modern monorail system.

This is happening despite the prevailing opinion of many transit industry professionals that monorails have many implementational and operational problems. For a regional Seattle system, monorail technology was evaluated ... but rejected in favor of the LRT plan ultimately approved by voters in 1996 and now under implementation.

Nevertheless, there has remained significant community support in Seattle for monorail, much of it stemming from local pride and affection for the venerable existing monorail. Thus, in November 2000, voters gave a green light to the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC), actually a public agency, allocating funds for further, more detailed study into installing a modern Seattle monorail system.

Meanwhile, serious overruns in the projected budget for Sound Transit's light rail transit (LRT) program – a regional project, called Link – led to public disillusion and controversy over the LRT plan. While the regional Link LRT implementation program has gotten back on track (see Seattle's Light Rail Project Reborn as South Starter Line), LRT opponents used the crisis to rekindle efforts to stop LRT in favor of an array of "alternatives", from free buses to various monorail schemes.

ETC Monorail Plan

In this context, monorail promoters – with the publicly funded ETC agency galvanized by a multi-million-dollar budget – were in the most forward striking position. Seattle monorail advocates thus seized the opportunity to push forward a monorail project, with a funding plan to finance it. The project, with the funding plan, is on the Seattle city ballot for 5 November 2002.

The project before voters is a 14-mile-long double-beamway monorail alignment entirely within the city of Seattle (the limits authorized by state legislation). This so-called "Green Line" monorail would extend from the Ballard neighborhood north of Seattle's CBD, through the CBD itself (mainly on 5th Avenue), then south from the CBD, across Harbor island, in to West Seattle (see ETC Green Line map below). ETC has, in various documents, indicated a total of 18 to 24 stations; one publicized map indicates 19 stations.

As marketed by its promoters, the monorail seems almost a miracle mode – significantly cheaper than Sound Transit's LRT project, attracting more riders, paying its own operating costs from the farebox and advertising revenues. But all of ETC's claims and projections have raised very skeptical eyebrows among many onlookers outside the zealous ranks of monorail enthusiasts.

Seattle's ETC plan would use monorail trainsets similar to these in fanciful artist's rendition of monorail under construction in Las Vegas. However, Seattle's monorail would run almost entirely over existing city streets, rather than the grassy private casino right-of-way shown here. Furthermore, Seattle's system will require a 2.5-foot-wide emergency evacuation catwalk, and probably concrete drip pans beneath the beamways – both not shown here.

The capital cost was originally projected in January 2002 at more than $1.73 billion (2002 dollars). However, the ballot measure specifies a funding cap of only $1.5 billion (which probably means the ultimate system, if funded, would be scaled back).

Capital Cost Controversy

Yet even the $1.73 capital billion cost figure is greeted with skepticism by many professional engineers and planners and regarded as substantially understated. The project, with several water crossings and difficult terrain to negotiate, would seem to have a projected unit cost ($124 million/mile) approximately equal to that of the Las Vegas monorail ($124 million/mile), which is planned for construction on perfectly flat terrain between downtown Las Vegas and several casinos, and with much of the right-of-way contributed. For many planners familiar with large urban mass transportation projects, this challenges plausibility.

And there's another issue of credibility with this projected cost. For years, to win public support, monorail promoters assured voters that an elevated monorail system, supposedly superior to LRT, could be constructed at a bargain price (claims ranged between $25 million to $40 million per mile). In fact, Seattleites were told, a monorail would be such a terrific investment, the private sector would rush in to finance and build it. Critics warned that, as an elevated rapid transit mode, the cost of a monorail system would be prohibitively high.

Now, of course, with the results of ETC's construction estimates on the table, the cost is extremely high – about $107 to $124 million per mile (depending on whether you believe ETC's political spinmeisters or their engineering consultants) – for a system with far less capacity than LRT. And, rather than the promised private-sector funding, Seattle taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill. in sum, the warnings of critics would seem eminently corroborated.

To fund the "Green Line", the ballot measure in November would allocate a rather stiff automobile-tag tax. This tax would amount to $280 per year for a $20,000 motor vehicle. That's in addition to all other annual license fees and taxes.

Painful Tax ... for Urban Toy?

For the average Seattle household, ETC monorail campaigners argue the tax would amount to "only" about $116 (extra) per year. However, many Seattle households don't own cars at all, thus skewing the average downward; for car-owning families, the average would undoubtedly be higher.

The "bite" of this tax might be more tolerable if it actually contributed to rational, systematic mass transportation development in the Seattle region. Unfortunately, problems with the ETC monorail plan suggest that it may turn out to be little more than an expensive urban toy, and, worse yet, may be intended by some simply to bollix the region's more foresightful LRT development program.

Beamways Over Seattle?

One of the big limitations of a monorail is that it's much less flexible than LRT. Monorails must be totally grade-separated from other traffic – usually elevated on aerial beamways atop support columns. A big ETC selling point in Seattle is that, unlike Sound Transit's Link LRT project (which is wrestling with the challenges of of some subway construction), Seattle's monorail will "Rise Above it All" – in other words, huge, elevated, dual-direction beamways, support columnns, and bents will slice across the city, and massive elevated stations will be plunked over streets and sidewalks. (The photo above shows one of the elevated stations of the new monorail system in Tama, Japan.)

This has sparked considerable controversy over the visual impact of an elevated line obstructing scenic views, particularly in the heart of downtown Seattle. Yet Seattle voters have been given relatively little reliable and valid information in regard to the realities of an elevated monorail system. Monorail enthusiasts have portrayed monorail systems as light, airy, slender, unobtrusive structures sailing gracefully over streets. But what does a real, revenue-service monorail really look like?

Take monorail stations, for example. Stations planned for the Las Vegas Resort Corridor Monorail project can probably be taken as an accurate, representative example of modern monorail station facilities designed for heavy-duty urban revenue service, such as ETC envisions for Seattle. The Las Vegas stations are, appropriately, designed to handle heavy urban volumes of passengers safely and efficiently. Thus, most of the project's monorail stations are massive elevated structures, designed with a mezzanine level to enable passenger access to either monorail directional guideway from either side of the street. There are stairways, escalators, and elevators to the mezzanine level, and additional stairways, escalators, and elevators to the platform level. (Drawing shows elevated Stratosphere monorail station, Las Vegas.)

Most of the proposed monorail stations will be 3-level structures (ground, platform, mezzanine) overhanging major streets, with support columns bearing the straddle bents at each side of the street. Spanning the entire thoroughfare, they will create in effect short "tunnels" over the major streets where the monorail is planned to be routed. ETC has refrained from releasing designs of most of its planned stations, but one can only suspect that, with Las Vegas serving as their model, many stations will be similar.
[Source: Las Vegas Regional Transportation Commission, Appendix E, Project Plans, 15 Feb. 2002]

Perhaps, after reviewing and assessing the actual facts and realities of a monorail system, Seattle voters will still decide that's indeed what they would like to have across the Seattle skyline. So far, however, ETC and its entourage of monorail campaigners have been considerably less than forthcoming with such realities. For example, ETC's planning guidelines stipulate a 30-inch emergency walkway "for the continuous length of the route" – but that 2.5-foot-wide walkway is mysteriously invisible in the publicity graphics disseminated by ETC.
[Source: ETC Opperating Requirements Documents, 1 July 2002, Sec. 5.2]

Consequently, it is questionable whether much of the Seattle voting public are being given all the facts, and reliable, comprehensive information, by the monorail agency, to enable them to make a relatively competent and adequately informed decision.

Capacity and Other Problems

Equally troubling are technical problems and limitations of the proposed monorail. Capacity would be considerably less than with LRT or other more conventional, 2-rail systems.

Since monorail vehicles typically straddle a concrete beam, the wheel assemblies usually are pushed up into the passenger cabin area, taking space away from passenger utilization and thus reducing the capacity of the car. Furthermore, monorail trainsets – permanently joined, articulated strings of car units – are typically short compared to the full length of LRT trains. With a platform length of 140 to 162 feet planned, and a 136-foot-long 4-unit trainset envisioned, each ETC monorail trainset would carry only about 185 passengers, compared to 600 for a 4-car Link LRT train. Thus the entire ETC monorail system would have about 31% of the capacity of Link LRT's ultimate system, designed for 4-car trains.

There are numerous other technical limitations of monorail technology compared to LRT and other conventional railway systems. For example, while monorail systems are generally non-standardized and proprietary, steel-wheel-on-rail systems have access to an extensive array of widely available conventional railway hardware. Standard railway switches, for instance, are significantly less expensive than monorail switches, whereas a monorail's entire elevated beamway support structure must be moved with powerful electrohydraulic motors.

Monorail switches, such as this one for the Jacksonville monorail (photo: Jon Bell), are cumbersome and relatively expensive, and require powerful electrohydraulic motors to function.

Monorails tend to have performance limitations. For example, rail vehicles have higher acceleration than typical monorail trainsets, probably because standard rail transit vehicles can have more powerful propulsion motors, while monorails are limited because of the above-noted intrusion of wheel assemblies into the passenger compartment. A standard railway system, such as LRT, also tends to take up less storage space than a monorail system; thus the cost of storage-maintenance facilities is lower.

A major technological limitation by far is the alignment inflexibility of monorail – requiring high-priced elevated construction and other aspects of full grade separation even in the outskirts of an urban area like Seattle. For a long-range, regional system, this would tend to impose a price constraint, and emerge as an issue particularly as Sound Transit would pursue expansion into the suburbs. For example, cities like St. Louis, Dallas, and San Diego have been able to expand their LRT systems at a much faster pace than comparable cities with fully grade-separated rapid transit systems, like Vancouver, San Francisco, and Atlanta. These factors all undoubtedly played a role in the original decision of Seattle planners and designers in the 1990s to go with a standard railway technology (LRT) for Link.

Ridership, Costs, Revenues, and Credibility

For the most part, these technological limitations tend to seem like techno-chatter among transit nerds, and have been largely ignored by the media and the public. But ETC's credibility is a matter for public concern, and that credibility has continuously been called into question over the agency's capital cost estimates (noted above) and its other projections.

  • Ridership – With two lines radiating out of Seattle's CBD into well-developed central-city areas, there's no question that any rapid-transit system would attract good ridership. But ETC's estimates have grown like Pinocchio's nose. An original projection of 50,000 rider-trips per day, performed by the URS consulting firm, has grown somehow to 59,000 per day. Then, ETC arbitrarily pads this with an additional 10,000 "tourist and special events" trips, for a grand total of 69,000 per day. This has richly fertilized skepticism, even in the media, especially since it's predicated on bus feeder service which has been neither planned nor funded, and automobile park & ride access for which relative paltry parking facilities have been planned.
    [Source: ETC, "Draft Seattle Popular Transit Plan", April 2002; URS Corp., "Ridership Forecast Documentation for the Seattle Monorail Project", July 2002]
  • Fares – ETC has juggled a dazzling array of fare "scenarios", but the one adopted for revenue projections seems to assume a peak fare of $1.50 and offpeak fare of $1.25. Rather than the currently free transfers allowed by Seattle's bus and trolleybus system, transferring riders would pay an extra fare or perhaps half-fare. This calls into question whether 82% of monorail riders, as projected by ETC, would actually transfer from the bus system.
  • Operating Cost – ETC has continued to cite a $25 million annual cost for the target year of 2020, as first publicized by ETC in its original "Draft Seattle Popular Transit Plan" (April 2002). Yet ETC has released an operations & maintenance (O&M) cost model from its own consulting team, Lea + Elliott, dated 2 Aug. 2002, which shows a high estimate O&M cost of $32.9 million – nearly $8 million higher than ETC's publicized figure. Further, the L+E estimate assumes 2-car trainsets, not the 4-car trainsets widely publicized and needed to fulfill capacity requirements. And the O&M budget apparently includes no expenses whatever for ETC. In other words, (1) Total O&M cost is nearly 1/3 higher than publicized; (2) the higher L+E projection provides for 2-car trains, not larger; and (3) it omits overhead costs for the ETC agency itself.
    [Source: ETC, "Draft Seattle Popular Transit Plan", April 2002; Lea + Elliott AGT O&M Cost Model, 2 Aug. 2002]
  • Revenues – Perhaps ETC's most startling marketing claim for the monorail is its promise that revenues would cover operating costs, and no subsidy would be needed, at least after 2020. (ETC claims that, before then, it has budgeted a subsidy out of the motor-vehicle tax revenue – but that's predicated on building the monorail for $1.5 billion, which is very dubious.) URS's fare revenue estimate (in their ridership documentation, p. 12), based on the peak $1.50/0ffpeak $1.25 rates mentioned above, comes to about $17.9 million in 2020 – leaving a shortfall of at least $15 million a year (on the basis of the Lea + Elliott O&M estimate, which seems low). To cover the shortfall, ETC has claimed amazing gargantuan advertising revenues that outperform those seen in entire transit systems – some of the largest in the country, like San Francisco's. ETC seems in particularly big trouble on this one.

Redundant and Competing Systems?

Another major problem with the ETC scheme is whether maintaining two basically large, competing fixed-guideway systems, with incompatible technology, really makes sense. if the Green Line monorail plan plan is approved, ETC will be in the position of competing against Sound Transit for scarce local and (it's safe to bet, eventually) Federal Transit Administration funding (assuming that the monorail can meet FTA guidelines in the future, since it is not currently being built in compliance). The rather steep annual motor vehicle excise tax could well become a serious money drain on Seattle taxpayers, diverting funding away from regional LRT development for what seems essentially to be a lower-capacity and expensive urban novelty.

Aside from technology, there is a very marked difference in route character between the two systems. The ETC Green Line monorail serves two inner-city corridors north and south of the CBD and well within the City of Seattle (as noted above, the monorail is authorized only within municipal Seattle). In contrast, Sound Transit's Link LRT plan has been a regional plan from the outset, and as such must select corridors suitable for regional development.

Supporters of the regional LRT plan worry that approval of the monorail could trigger a political backlash to stop the LRT project entirely. They warn that the ETC monorail proposal could be a Trojan Horse plan basically aimed at killing or truncating LRT development in Seattle. While, for the moment, top leaders in the monorail campaign are tending to mute their hostility and talk about "cooperation" and "connectivity" with the LRT plan, the ETC's propaganda and supporters' arguments (e.g., local letters to the editor) make it clear that ETC's aim is to usurp the ST Link plan, and that ETC monorail backers are bitterly hostile to LRT. Curiously, most of Seattle's most prominent Road Warriors and LRT opponents of every stripe have rallied to the ETC monorail plan; that in itself should be a giveaway as to what the proposal really represents.

Troubles in Store for Monorail Project?

So, what if the ETC monorail plan is approved? Many transit planners and opponents of the proposal predict the project will probably eventually experience some major budget overruns. Certainly, wirh a $1.5 billion cap on bonds, it's like that only a portion of the 14 miles would ever be built.

Another huge problem is the operating cost shortfall. With wildly exaggerated and vacillating ridership and revenue estimates, meandering fare estimates, and apparently lowballed operating cost estimates, ETC have managed to publicize a patchwork of figures to back their promise that the monorail will pay its own operating costs – despite, of course, widespread skepticism. The reality will almost surely mean some kind of pressure for an additional operational subsidy from somewhere. In addition, it's likely that the system's capacity constraints and other operational shortcomings would start giving headaches and embarrassments once it's in operation.

All this may lie in the distant future; for the immediate future, however, with no real-world data to deal with, it's probable that ETC will continue to portray a very rosy outlook. This could very well lead other cities to get starry-eyed about monorail before any truly reliable, solid, here-and-now experience (i.e., a reality bath) emerges to indicate otherwise. (Likewise the first stage of Las Vegas's rebuilt and extended monorail, with private financing and subsidy, isn't due to see the daylight of revenue operation until sometime in 2004.)

Monorail backers are treating all their promises as if they were accomplished fact years ahead of any real experience with this mode. (There is the rather abysmally performing Jacksonville monorail, but it's more of a CBD peoplemover and so not compellingly persuasive as a case study of monorail in action.)

Certainly, if the ETC plan is approved on November 5th, the American public will have another case study (along with the Las Vegas monorail) of the realities of a large-scale urban monorail project. And Seattle taxpayers will begin to see what they have actually bought.

Rev. 2003/01/20

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