Governing Magazine/April 2006
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.
By Alex Marshall
I 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
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
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
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
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."
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