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Seattle: Huge Monorail Project Faces Growing Community Squabbles

Light Rail Progress • April 2003

All large transportation projects have major impacts, and tend to evoke community concerns. And, despite the frequent claims of monorail enthusiasts (who seem to contend that monorails have little impact and will be accepted with uncritical acclaim by the public), that rule appears to apply to monorail projects as well as to LRT (light rail), BRT, and other public transport undertakings.

Recent developments in Seattle provide a case in point, as plans for the 14-mile-long Green Line monorail project of the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (SPMA) have sparked concerns about the project's impact from neighborhoods and community residents and business owners along the route. SPMA representatives have begun finding in community meetings that their dreams aren't quite as readily embraced by members of the community as they initially expected.

The Seattle experience illustrates some of the particular kinds of community concerns and objections that a monorail project can arouse. indeed, from end to end, the Green Line project seems to be facing controversy.

Worries over parking

Green Line monorail mapIn Ballard, at the far northern end of the proposed line, participants in one of the earliest community meetings (February 2003) expressed what the Ballard News-Tribune delicately called a "concern over monorail details". "Those in attendance wanted to know more about alignment issues, parking, station location and station design" reports the paper, noting that "These elements of the monorail plan have been concerns in Ballard since last year's campaign. This time around, residents and business owners are looking at them with a microscope."
[Ballard News-Tribune 2003/02/20]

A station planned near the intersection of Northwest 85th Street and 15th Avenue Northwest "will, for the time being, serve as the end of the monorail line" reports the News-Tribune. However, "That precarious location – it's already one of the busiest intersections in the city, as well as a major transit hub – makes a lot of people nervous when they start talking about adding yet another transportation system to the mix."

That nervousness increases when the public realize that the SPMA has only $25 million with which to try to solve parking needs. Noting the rising concerns of area residents, the paper asks, "How can they be sure they'll get adequate parking near the end of the line?"

Environmental intrusion

Further south, controversy has erupted over alternative monorail routes through the Seattle Center area – a venerated activity concentration near Seattle's downtown.

"Leaders of the Folklife and Bumbershoot festivals are concerned about a compromise that would run the line through, but not down the middle of, the campus" relates reporter Kery Murakami of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Perhaps more significantly," Murakami adds, "City Council members are voicing worries about slicing through one of the city's icons."
[Seattle Post-Intelligencer 19 March 2003]

The route dispute has been brewing for months. "While going around the Center would add time to trips, some balked at the idea of cutting through the middle of the campus, saying it would ruin views and destroy the wide open ambience of the campus", Murakami reported in an earlier, February, article (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 25 February 2003).

Nevertheless, the most recent outbreak of the route conflict seemed to catch SPMA planners by surprise. "Monorail officials had thought they had found a solution to one of the most vexing choices they face: whether to go around or through the Center", relates Murakami, who explains how the new conflict developed:
[Seattle Post-Intelligencer 19 March 2003]

Although going around would add time to trips, groups using the SeattleCenter objected to going by the Center House through the middle of the campus.

The Seattle Center advisory group, made up of neighborhood residents and groups that use the park, came up with the compromise. Instead of going past the Center House, the train would wind through the less-used northern part of the campus behind intiman Theatre.

The Seattle Monorail Authority embraced the idea headed into detailed studies over the summer. The authority won't make a final decision until December.

But the City Council would have to approve any changes to the city-owned Seattle Center. And at a meeting Monday, Councilman Jim Compton said the compromise still would send the monorail through the Center. "I don't see a reason to split the last green public space in Seattle."

Seattle Center routesIronically, fears of noise and visual disruption are major factors in the dispute – despite monorail proponents' familiar assurances of the monorail system's aesthetic gracefulness and supposedly noiseless operation. Northwest Folklife Executive Director Michael Herschensohn told the P-i that "he worried that the noise and the sight of the monorail would disrupt quieter performances during the annual Memorial Day weekend festival. He said the fair might have to become smaller because parts of the Seattle Center would become unusable."

Although the Bumbershoot Festival tends to be more "raucous", according to the P-i, "sponsors said they were concerned that the monorail would be a distraction during the Labor Day weekend festival." Leaders of both the Folklife and Bumbershoot festivals emphasized they were worried for the Center's future, not just for their events.
[Seattle Post-Intelligencer 19 March 2003]

City Council President Peter Steinbrueck urged the SPMA to come up with another option "that might be more viable" ... while Councilman Richard Conlin underscored that there was "no point in proposing a route the council would not back", according to the P-i report.

The SPMA seems to be experiencing the usual public tug-of-war over alternative routes, a phenomenon rather familiar to planners involved with light rail and other fixed-route systems. Thus, in addition to routing the monorail around the Seattle Center, Steinbrueck also urged the monorail authority to consider an idea abandoned last year: Rather than continuing along Fifth Avenue to the Seattle Center, he suggested, the monorail should be turned west on Denny Way and then "jogged" back north to KeyArena.

SPMA Chairman Tom Weeks said he thought the SPMA might be "willing" to re-study the Denny Way route. But reporter Murakami noted that monorail planners had "shied away" from the idea last year because it might require the closure of traffic lanes on a busy street.

On the other hand, Seattle Center Executive Director Virginia Anderson said a majority of the center's advisory group believed that allowing the monorail to pass through the Seattle Center campus had advantages. The line would still be able to go physically through the Experience Music Project building, and riders would get a view of the campus. However, she told the newspaper that it was not not likely that the group would reach a consensus on the route issue.

Gobbling property, razing buildings

Potential Green Line property acquisitions and property demolitions are another source of friction in the growing faceoff between monorail planners and community residents and business owners. This controversy belies another claim of many monorail proponents – that monorails simply "rise above it all" and supposedly avoid the need for consuming surface real estate.

On the contrary, the Green Line project is now facing the prospect of significant property takings and the destruction of substantial numbers of existing buildings. "Monorail planners may need to raze more buildings" headlined the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on 1 April 2003, in another article by reporter Kery Murakami.

During the campaign to get voter approval for the monorail, opponents argued that monorail promoters – spearheaded by the publicly funded Elevated Transportation Co. (ETC) – were downplaying the impact of such things as the extent of real estate needs, building condemnations, and the size and impact of monorail stations. Now, "Seattle monorail officials acknowledge they may buy and tear down more buildings than they originally anticipated to cut a swath for the 14-mile line between Ballard and West Seattle" reports the P-i article.

"As they've worked to figure out where the monorail should run, they've found several places where knocking down buildings might make the $1.75 billion line more effective", the article adds.

South of the midtown area, the Green Line's mushrooming need for property acquisitions and building demolitions has apparently emerged as the major focus of concerns. While monorail planners feel tearing down buildings in its path might be better for the monorail system, some property owners, such as Kurt Petrauskas, whose Earthwise retail store is one of those targeted for destruction, complain that there's a human toll. "It would kill me to see this building destroyed, because I'm into salvaging old things," he said.

Chongqing station constructionThe monorail authority envisions a station right where his store stands, at First Avenue and Lander Street. As the photo at right (showing a station of the brand-new Chongqing monorail under construction) illustrates, elevated monorail stations, designed for higher-capacity urban traffic, tend to be monstrous structures, requiring enormous swaths of real estate – not the graceful, airy facilities delicately erected atop slender columns, as portrayed by monorail marketers.

Did the SPMA plan for any of this? "The authority is considering buying roughly 38 parcels of land. It's difficult to say how many more that is than the monorail plan voters approved last year", reports the P-i. And, according to SPMA executive director Joel Horn, even more land purchases may be considered "because engineers and neighborhood groups have pointed to several parcels the initiative's drafters never thought of."
[Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1 April 2003]

During the 2002 campaign, monorail critics warned that monorail backers were seriously understating the extent and cost of real estate acquisition, and, in fact, the entire cost of the monorail project. The ETC (precursor to the SPMA) insisted that its cost estimates were precise and accurate.

Now, the P-i reports their methodology: "The initiative's architects eyeballed some buildings the authority might want to buy but they never took a full inventory, basing their cost estimates on what other transit projects have spent on land." in other words, a rough guess, based not on the actual planned route itself, but on extrapolations fudged from other projects ... and sold to gullible voters as a "highly accurate" estimate.

Desperate to save his Earthwise store from the monorail wrecking ball, Kurt Petrauskas has asked why the SPMA couldn't instead build its station in the Sodo Center parking lot across the street from his store. But there's a technical hitch – that would mean too sharp a turn for the monorail to have a station.

Which raises another issue – the claim by monorail promoters that, because it's elevated, a monorail system has great routing flexibility and isn't limited, like LRT, by such fixtures as buildings and other impediments on the surface. Michele Jacobson, the SPMA's official in charge of system design, dismissed the Sodo Center lot alternative because it is sited "where the line is supposed to make a sharp turn south on Utah Avenue." Petrauskas's store, "where the line would still be going straight, is a better place to put a station."
[Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1 April 2003]

It should be noted that such a route challenge would be a problem for any fixed-guideway transit project. Despite early claims to the contrary by its backers, the Green Line monorail is thus revealed to have no special immunity from such constraints.

SoDo route mapEven in the midtown area, buildings are being targeted for destruction. "Another trade-off comes at Fifth Avenue North and Denny Way", reports Murakami in the April 1st P-i article. "The current Monorail passes over the corner of a single-story building at the intersection, then heads toward the Seattle Center above the sidewalk on the west side of Fifth Avenue." But, explains Murakami, "Under the authority's tentative plan, the monorail would not go over the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, but right where a law office, the adjoining Fat City Garage and four other buildings on Fifth Avenue now stand."

The SPMA is now suggesting that some of the buildings might have to be demolished to make room for support pillars for the new monorail system. "That worries Carol Edward, who owns the law office, and her husband, Jesse Berger, who owns the garage" reports Murakami.

"Where else would we have the garage if we had to move?" Edward asked. She proposed that instead of routing the monorail over her building, the SPMA route it instead down the middle of Fifth Avenue, as the Seattle Center Monorail has done for 30 years.

But SPMA planners have a problem with that. Jacobson explained that the authority wants to put a station on Fifth Avenue just north of the garage to serve the Seattle Center and link up with a potential future line to Fremont and Green Lake. Furthermore, the authority is trying to avoid putting monorail stations over the middle of streets.

"With all the sensitivity toward the monorail casting shadows on the sidewalk, I don't know if people would appreciate us putting a roof over the street" Jacobson said. And if the station can't be over the street, then it and the tracks have to be on the side where the buildings are.

And, to put the beamways there, some buildings may have to go. in other words, the monorail will avoid one problem by creating another.

West Seattle problems

Similar problems are looming in West Seattle, toward the southern end of the Green Line. In a February 2003 article, Murakami noted that while some residents and business owners were pleased that they might get a monorail station, "the devil that's coming with more details worried some in West Seattle that the pounding of wrecking balls would replace the clicking of tap shoes at a dance studio and other businesses."

The reporter went on to elaborate: "Rather than taking a more circuitous route, monorail planners are now leaning toward cutting through a block and knocking down as many as four businesses, including a bar and Kathy's Studio of Dance." But, before and during the 2002 referendum campaign to "sell" the monorail plan, in response to critics' warnings of property destruction, monorail backers proclaimed that elevated monorails could quite easily be routed around existing properties and buildings. Now, the realities of such an inefficient, tortuous route alignment are emerging.
[Seattle Post-Intelligencer 25 February 2003]

As elsewhere along the route, the prospect of massive property condemnations and building removals is sparking alarm. "Monorail proposal upsets merchants in West Seattle", headlines a February 2003 article by Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom, who reports that "A preliminary route plan for the Green Line monorail would run trains over the eastern part of the West Seattle Junction district, a layout that has merchants fearing they might be displaced."
[Seattle Times 22 February 2003]

Lindblom elaborates:

The line would turn at the corner of Southwest Alaska Street and 42nd Avenue Southwest, then proceed southwest above retail shops before straightening itself at California Avenue Southwest.

In doing so, the tracks pass through what is arguably the most sensitive block in the 14-mile corridor. The turns are sharp, the streets are tight, and the business community seems open-minded but jittery.

The 42nd Ave SW alignment, preferred by SPMA, would obliterate a Petco store and several other buildings. "Their plan is to take out everything from Petco down" complained one owner whose business would be zapped. included in this swath would also be the West Seattle Town Hall.

LV monorailMonorails, such as Las Vegas's line connecting casinos (right), have advantage in narrower profile of beamways for constrained urban conditions. But monorails have technical limitations compared with standard two-rail LRT systems – such as the inability to make tight turns.

Once again, community suggestions for alternative routings have been rejected because of monorail constraints. As Lindblom reports, "The Junction association has suggested putting the station along Southwest Alaska Street. But from there the trains couldn't make the turn to and from California Avenue Southwest, Bergman said." So, whatever happened to the vaunted "flexibility" of monorails?

You know you've got a problem when longtime salesmen of the monorail idea jump ship to help work against the actual, real-world implementation of their own plans. As the P-I's reporter Murakami relates, even Dick Falkenbury, the ex-cabbie and local icon who launched the drive to build Seattle's monorail line, is now criticizing the monorail authority, saying (in the words of the P-i reporter) "it's a little too willing to consider knocking down buildings, acting more like a bull in a china shop than a skilled surgeon."
[Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1 April 2003]

Having helped unleash the genie, Falkenbury is now apparently trying to capitalize on mitigating the havoc his project is now wreaking. "After resigning from the monorail authority's board, he started a consulting business", reports Murakami. "His first job: lobbying to save businesses from being knocked down."

Of course, all major public transit investment projects have impact consequences, and, in crowded urban areas, most require some property acquisition and residential or commercial relocations. The difference is: Most transit agencies face up to this fact and fully inform the public, including voters, in advance. in contrast, for Seattle's monorail project, this and other impacts have seemed to be a "dirty little secret" which many monorail marketers have preferred to obscure, presenting idealized fantasy portrayals of monorail rather than its true-to-life realities.

Graphics: Seattle Popular Monorail Authority; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Seattle Times; Chongqing Monorail Project; Las Vegas Monorail Corporation.

Updated 2003/04/27

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