A Case of Voter Overkill

The death of Seattle's monorail plan is a telling tale of the failure to capitalize on grassroots energy and gumption.
April 2006
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

suspect the Seattle monorail would have been a great asset to its city and region--if city leaders had allowed it to live. But that's not the only reason I believe Mayor Greg Nickels and his allies in the business community made a mistake when they helped kill the populist transportation project last November. In working to shut down this grassroots movement, Nickels and allied business leaders were also shutting down democracy and civic engagement. And in the long run, that's more important to a healthy city than any specific transportation project.

The monorail's tale is worth recounting. The plan got underway about 10 years ago when a hippie taxicab driver dreamed up a simple X-shaped set of monorail lines that would provide access to downtown and hit many of the city's population centers. He and a newly formed group of residents went straight to the voters and won approval of the plan in a 1997 referendum. Then in three more referendums, voters gave a nod to a specific design and a financing plan for the $2 billion project. They even approved a new tax on their cars to pay for it.

All the referendums were necessary because the politicians and business interests kept sending the project back to the voters in hopes that they would kill it. The record suggests they regarded this as an upstart project--an alien entity--that came up outside the usual channels. After the fourth referendum in 2004, the newly organized Seattle Monorail Project, armed with its new taxing authority, spent $200 million assembling and buying land for the stations, designing the project and negotiating rights of way to use city streets.

Then in the past two years, problems emerged. Revenues from the car tax fell below original estimates; costs went up. From the Big Dig in Boston to your average new cloverleaf, projects almost always have trouble at some point in making the numbers meet. Yet rather than help the monorail project leaders work out a new financing plan, Nickels and others sent a downsized version back for a fifth referendum--again hoping voters would kill it, which they did in the wake of misleading new cost figures.

He who lives by referendum, dies by referendum, I guess. But five referendums is at least three too many. Once voters approved a specific design and a financing plan, the city should have done everything it could to make it work. The monorail may not have been perfect, but it would have been a welcome alternative to the daily gridlock that plagues Seattle. Most people do not have an infinite amount of time, energy and gumption. By allowing the monorail to die, the city was essentially telling its citizens to shut up and sit down. City leaders may be happy to be rid of the upstart project but as a result, the city's "civic capital" is substantially less than it used to be.

Frankly, I'm not a fan of either referendums or monorails. Voters can do contradictory things in referendums; monorails can be expensive, ugly and impractical. But during a tour of the Seattle monorail project's headquarters in 2003, I saw designs for a surprisingly elegant project. Its leaders appeared to have inventive ideas and to be cost-conscious. They had, for example, designed the line with special overlooks--a train could pull off the main line and its passengers could step out and see the city. For the pleasure of the view, tourists could be charged a special fare and ride separate trains apart from the daily commuter grind. Another reason to back monorail is that it has a special place in Seattle's history, since the first one was built for the 1962 World's Fair.

By most accounts, it was Mayor Nickels who dealt the project the deathblow. "The mayor had a moment in time when he could have salvaged the project," says John Littel, a labor leader who was involved with the project. "When he withdrew his support, that was the beginning of the end."

Nickels tells me that the monorail project was not his to save. "They had so destroyed their credibility with everyone, that I think they lost their chance," he says of the project's leaders. "They failed to meet my deadline for coming up with a different plan. I believe the state legislature would have stepped in and killed it, if the voters hadn't."

I find Nickels' language telling. He refers to the monorail project as something outside himself; its leaders are "they." The monorail's fate might have been different if Nickels had been able to say "we."