September 26, 2002

Monorail elevates transit to a new low

  • Proposed $1.7B monorail won’t solve Seattle’s traffic woes
    LMN Architects

    The measure of effectiveness of any proposed solution to a problem is a combination of its presumed benefits and its adverse impacts all considered in the context of the solution’s dollar cost. The proposed Ballard-to-West Seattle monorail solution by the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) fails markedly in all areas, leaving the puzzling question of just what problem does this monorail proposal purport to solve.

    A look at today’s monorail route along Fifth Avenue shows the lasting negative effect it can have on development.

    Well documented, even by ETC’s own information, are the negative impacts to the street and pedestrian environment in both the city center and the neighborhoods through which the monorail is aligned. But only more recently is coming to light the fact that the investment of $1.7 billion makes no marked improvement to existing conditions of mass transportation or traffic congestion.

    If the voter decision to be rendered in November is simply decided by the nostalgic acceptance Seattle seems to have for its existing monorail, we will have failed miserably to subject this issue to the scrutiny it deserves. A quick look at the impacts and presumed benefits of the proposal reveals its significant shortcomings.

    It is obvious, that given an alternative, no citizens would choose to have an elevated transportation system run through their immediate neighborhood.

    Even the building of the existing monorail entailed the payment of mitigation money to the then existing property holders along Fifth Avenue, and for the past 40 years the lack of quality development and public spaces along that right of way illustrate the lasting negative impact monorail alignment can have. The more dense the neighborhood (whether in the city core or neighborhood commercial centers), the greater the impact because of the constricted relationships of property lines and right of way widths.

    Impacts on Second Avenue

    Seattle, through its planning and design commissions, has a long and enviable record of protecting its urban and pedestrian environment through the regulation of sky bridges and other similar physical elements that generally degrade the streetscape. These regulations are proven to provide a healthier urban environment and Seattle should be thankful for their existence.

    The monorail will violate both the spirit and letter of those regulations at 16 cross streets through the heart of downtown and along its entire linear alignment down Second Avenue. Keep in mind that Second Avenue has many of Seattle’s premier pedestrian spaces and pocket parks in Benaroya Hall’s Garden of Remembrance, the Washington Mutual/Brooklyn Cafe court, Wells Fargo/Jackson Federal Building open space, and the Norton Building court.

    These spaces and similar assets in neighborhood alignments of the system elsewhere will largely deteriorate and eventually disappear, and one need look no further for proof of this than to the absence of such spaces along the existing monorail’s Fifth Avenue.

    A high-capacity system?

    Monorails are not a high-capacity system in a mass transit sense and no city in the world employs a monorail system as its comprehensive solution to public transit (as opposed to a single line or loop serving an isolated purpose, similar to the existing Seattle Center monorail).

    While it is comforting to note that projected ridership by ETC has monorail units running at standing room capacities, what this means is that the initial Second Avenue alignment will not have sufficient unused head way capacity for any meaningful system expansion.

    The ETC master plan shows three lines feeding into downtown from the north and three from the south. If ETC’s ridership numbers are projected to these lines — and such numbers are necessary to have any hope of covering operating expenses — they will totally overwhelm the capacity of the Second Avenue alignment and as such, this monorail proposal can hardly be considered the “backbone” of a future comprehensive system.

    Any expansion will require still additional north-south guide way alignments through downtown impacting further: Second Avenue with another set of guide ways, or First, Fourth or Fifth avenues with a totally new alignment. Because the guide way configuration for a monorail system is by definition elevated, unlike other dedicated right of way transportation systems, a monorail is unable to respond to opportunities to be at grade where possible, elevated where necessary, or below grade where mandatory.

    Failing to have learned from all evidence elsewhere, when the attempt is made to implement the ETC system master plan, impacts to the city’s environment as noted above will be system-wide, city wide, forever. Where possible, cities are tearing down their elevated systems within their urban cores, not building new ones.

    Big costs

    No one presumes construction of a meaningful transportation system can be had without significant investment. But in this proposal, never is so much to be spent for the benefit of so few. From ETC’s own data, 82 percent of projected ridership already use the Metro bus system today. Further, 50 percent of all projected ridership will also require a bus trip at the beginning or end of their monorail trip, which in turn will require two separate fares (or if one fare is established, it will likely mean a loss in projected revenue for the monorail, Metro, or both).

    To finance this proposal, the greatest single tax in the history of Seattle is to be levied against Seattle private and commercial vehicle and trailer owners. As proposed in the monorail plan, such taxes are not one-time, but are to be paid annually with no fixed end date. The tax will be assessed at $140 per $10,000 worth of vehicle value. The average Seattle car owner will be paying several hundred dollars and a multiple-car family (with reasonably late model cars) could approach an annual tax payment of $1,000 for this proposal.

    Again by ETC’s own admission, this expenditure will do nothing to even begin to solve the congestion experienced today at Seattle’s regional traffic choke points. When is the last time anyone heard that traffic was in a wall-to-wall bumper-to-bumper standstill through Ballard or West Seattle. And if the issue passes, it will very likely eliminate any inclination by the voters to further tax themselves to solve the region’s true congestion problems.

    And finally, according to the cost probability assessment, although there is a 90 percent probability that the proposal can be constructed within the potential tax revenues, there is only a 50 percent chance that it can be done within the stated $1.7 billion budget.

    By any measure — 1) the uncertainties of project detail, 2) the vagaries of projected budget, 3) the failure to be a system “backbone,” 4) the lack of mass transportation benefits and 5) the significant degrading impacts to the urban environment — all taken in context with its $1.7 billion price tag, make the Ballard-to-West Seattle monorail proposal a very poor investment for Seattle citizens and taxpayers.

    Judsen Marquardt, FAIA, is a founding partner of LMN Architects. Marquardt is an in-city resident of Seattle, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and Vice Chair of the Board of Regents of the American Architectural Foundation headquartered in Washington, D.C.

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