We're Baack

Exactly three years since the city killed the voter-approved monorail (I-41), the Seattle City Council--starting with a public hearing this week on July 9 and following up with council meetings on July 22 and August 4--has a chance to do what it should have originally done in July 2000: respect the will of the voters.

Two citizen initiatives later (I-53 and Citizen Petition No. 1), the newly empowered monorail agency is back at city hall asking for land-use code changes to accommodate the voter-mandated project. Thankfully, this time around, several council members who balked in 2000 (Jan Drago, Jim Compton, and Heidi Wills) got the message. They seem to be born-again monorail fans.

Add Nick Licata--a stalwart supporter from the beginning--and monorail advocate Judy Nicastro, and that's a five-to-four council majority. Unfortunately, with monorail foes like transportation chair Richard Conlin and naysayer Margaret Pageler in the mix, the council could derail the monorail again, or at least jack up costs by millions.

The code fixes the monorail agency is seeking are legit. For example, on eight spots along the Ballard-to-West Seattle route, the agency needs building-height limits raised to 65 feet to accommodate stations and neighborhoods. They also need an exemption from "setback" regulations that require buffer zones between public rights of way and building lots--even 65 feet in the air (like between monorail lines and monorail stations on the sides of buildings). Unreasonable, says monorail director Joel Horn. "We don't need commuters jumping from the platform from the train," Horn has joked with council members. It gets sillier. Let's say monorail builders need to engineer a smooth turn by running the line through the buffer zone. Is the track supposed to vanish for those 15 feet? "It may slow the trip a bit," jokes agency lobbyist Anne Levinson.

Finally, thanks to a street-use rule that council will take up later, the monorail agency is worried about getting stuck spending millions of dollars on street upgrades. When granting permits, the city can ask builders for money to bring substandard streets to code. This isn't project mitigation, though. It's new construction money that the city itself is supposed to be spending to meet codes--stuff like widening streets. Once again, Horn puts the issue in comical perspective: "Should we be spending the money voters mandated for public transit on widening roads for cars?"

In addition to these practical points, the council will vote on a sexier issue: Can the agency knock down the 1962 monorail along Fifth Avenue to build the new one? The Seattle Landmark Preservation Board voted to preserve the Alweg system in April. However, monorail committee chair Licata has rightly reformed the nostalgic proposal: Preserve the trains, but not the structure. Surely the public wants to prioritize a rapid public transit system over a system that plays one on TV.

Last time, council members killed the monorail. This time, now that the monorail has returned, they should get on board.