After eight years of reporting and editorializing about the monorail—the elevated mass transit project that died at the polls last week—The Stranger is dedicating the entire news section to our final thoughts on what has been an inspiring, frustrating, and ultimately infuriating experience. Bottom line: Seattle is stuck without an inner-city elevated transit system, and we have no backup plan. In this issue I detail Mayor Greg Nickels's failure to stand up for urban values (below); also Erica C. Barnett explains what went wrong; we interview Cleve Stockmeyer and Kristina Hill, co-author of the 2000 monorail initiative and the outgoing board chair, respectively; and Dan Savage gets the last word.
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Mayor Nickels claimed he wanted to push an urban agenda: He was for density, development, and smart growth. He said he wanted to challenge a city that favors car-centric, quasi-suburban neighborhoods like Laurelhurst, Magnolia, and Green Lake with their single-family zoning and inaccessible grocery stores. But Nickels's claims were empty. This fall, Nickels decided to throw out elevated transit with the trash, revealing that, despite the big-city posturing, he's just a suburbanite at heart. Without keeping speedy, elevated transit in his equation for change, Nickels has negated any sense of an urbanist agenda.
Last summer, when the headlines got tough for the 14-mile monorail project—a project that urban-minded Nickels voters had approved four times—Nickels caved in to the shortsighted, anti-monorail hysteria, and came out against the project.
Nickels disingenuously claimed he wanted the people to get the final say, and he pushed the monorail to a fifth public vote. In addition to the fact that no mass transit project could ever survive a vote during the crisis phase that all transit projects face—when the realities of cost and route are generating negative headlines (can you imagine if light rail had been put to a vote just a few months after its initial plan came out?)—Nickels put a loaded and fundamentally dishonest question before the voters. From his bully pulpit, Nickels declared that the project's finance plan was unfair, and he said the agency's board had run amok. He then yanked the monorail's transit-way agreement. Then the mayor and his staff showed up at community meetings and campaigned against the monorail.
Nickels's bad faith on the issue became even clearer when he scoffed at a new-and-improved plan that the SMP crafted to address his objections. Instead of giving the new plan a chance, Nickels played to the public's bad mood over the infamous $11 billion plan that, in fact, the SMP board had voted down several months earlier. Here's what the SMP came back with for the voters: Recognizing that the public had lost faith in the board, the new plan proposed making five of the nine board seats elected. (Two others would be appointed by the mayor himself.) As for the finances, the board proposed a $3.9-to-$4.9 billion project (not $11 billion), for a West Seattle through downtown to Interbay line. It would cost the average car owner just $10.83 a month. In the SMP's progressive tax plan, 20 percent of the people—the owners of expensive cars—would have produced more than half the revenue for a crucial mass transit project. Eighty percent of Seattle residents would have paid between $0 and $200 a year for the system—a system that would have linked up with the Eastside's light rail, greatly enhancing both systems' ridership numbers. The monorail itself was slated to serve 42,000 riders a day by 2010 (57,000 by 2030), with trains arriving at stations every six minutes.
This wasn't good enough for Nickels. "Too little, too late," Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said. Too little? A 54 percent decrease in cost? Too late? Nickels gave the SMP just four weeks to produce its turnaround plan. By comparison, Sound Transit got nine months to come up with a new plan after its financial meltdown in 2000. And Sound Transit's "improved" plan still socked the public with at least a 55 percent increase in costs over what voters approved (not even including debt service, which had been included when judging the monorail).
So it was, with disingenuous rhetoric and double standards, that Mayor Nickels destroyed Seattle's best chance for citywide rapid transit.
Nickels's cave to suburban values prompted one Seattle resident, a smart 29-year-old software engineer named Christian Gloddy, to form a pro-monorail group called 2045 Seattle (as in: What is Seattle going to look like in 2045?). Obviously, Gloddy's idealistic activism—one publicity stunt featured people walking around downtown Seattle in wetsuits to dramatize that West Seattle's only other transportation option will be to swim across Elliott Bay—wasn't enough to offset the mayor's hardball anti-monorail campaign. "You don't play poker with the mayor and win," Ceis said when the monorail was trapped between the agency's efforts to save the line and Team Nickels's efforts to kill it. The project died once and for all in the election, losing 65 percent to 35 percent—nearly the exact opposite of the monorail's margin of victory just one year previous.
In the wake of the election, 2045's Gloddy, who had brilliantly nicknamed Nickels "Mayor Gridlock" during the fight to save the monorail, found common cause with another grassroots group that's currently taking on Nickels's suburban agenda: the People's Waterfront Coalition (PWC). Gloddy has correctly identified a connection between his fight against Nickels's anti-monorail position and the PWC's current fight against Nickels's new transportation priority—a highway-centric vision for downtown. "It's an investment in the exact wrong direction for the city," says PWC leader Cary Moon. "Spending billions to continue enabling cars to take priority."
On election night, Gloddy got drunk and stayed up late, commiserating with Moon at the "monorail wake" at Trattoria Mitchelli. The pair talked about the PWC's alternative plan for downtown, which seriously downgrades the automobile. For starters, the PWC would tear down the Alaskan Way Viaduct and replace it with surface streets rather than a super highway. "It seems like such an obvious idea," says Gloddy, who plans to meet with Moon again—as he explores the possibility of aligning 2045 with the PWC. "Tear down a highway and build a community."
Instead Mayor Gridlock wants to spend $4.6 billion to build an underground highway in place of the viaduct, not only catering to the estimated 110,000 cars and trucks that drive on the viaduct every day, but inviting more traffic into downtown Seattle. It's a strategy that accommodates increasing gridlock rather than challenges entrenched suburban values. It's akin to accommodating a steady diet of Claim Jumper dinners by squeezing your increasing mass into those elastic-waist pants, rather than forcing yourself to lose a few pounds with a better diet.
The PWC's alternative vision for downtown—building a four-lane surface street to replace the viaduct; making infrastructure fixes (like making Third Avenue and Denny Way more accessible) to tap the 40 percent capacity that's currently not being used on surrounding downtown streets according to the city's own estimates; and moving more commuters to mass transit—seeks to curb Seattle's auto appetite. Moon points out that when the viaduct reopened after being closed temporarily for a few days after the February 2001 earthquake, traffic in the area fell by 27 percent for a few months—down to 80,000 trips a day. Out of necessity, commuters changed their habits and the sky didn't fall.
Mayor Gridlock isn't interested in the PWC's alternative. After killing the monorail, the mayor is now putting his political weight behind the tunnel option. On the morning after the election, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported: "Nickels looked forward to a second term in which he said he plans to focus on replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel." Nickels has lined up about $2.4 billion so far—yet another pile of public money, currently estimated nationally in the hundreds of billions of dollars, going to subsidize the automobile.
Nickels needs to understand that prioritizing roads over mass transit is an ill-conceived approach to addressing traffic woes. Rob Johnson, policy director for Seattle's Transportation Choices Coalition, sums up the moronic, Catch-22 impulse to build more roads: "The roads just fill up with congestion as fast as you can build new lanes. It's called latent demand." Johnson's point is common sense: More roads don't give commuters an option to get out of gridlock, they simply perpetuate gridlock. To be fair, heavy traffic, even gridlock, is an aspect of density. That's why progressive mayors who promote density need to give commuters a real option to get out of gridlock. Unfortunately, Gridlock Greg's solutions of trolleys, buses, and even light rail—often at grade and stuck in traffic or with unwieldy costs like $318 million per mile for tunneling making it ill-suited for Seattle's geography—don't provide the kind of speedy, inner-city above-grade transit that the monorail concept did.
Nickels's monorail bail undermined his agenda by failing to accommodate density, while opting for solutions that actually make density unlivable. And killing the monorail not only fails to service density, it also sabotages a central strategy for sparking density itself. Transit-oriented development—that is, housing and retail—blossoms around mass transit lines.
In addition to betraying his promises to voters on mass transit, Nickels's car-centric agenda makes a mockery of his internationally acclaimed challenge to President Bush over the Kyoto Protocol. Last summer Nickels got hundreds of urban mayors to challenge Bush's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol by pledging to enact local policies that would reduce greenhouse gasses to Kyoto levels. But here in his own backyard he's obliging a future of environmentally devastating auto emissions. After he killed the monorail, the international press lambasted Nickels: "In the case of the Seattle monorail," London's Infrastructure Journal editorialized after the election, "the urban transport project had everything in place—except the vital element of political will."
Nickels's anti-monorail stance and his pro-downtown highway position offered a defining picture (and a connecting thread) for frustrated pro-transit activists like Gloddy. Thus: Mayor Gridlock. "It's like we're living in the 1950s again," Gloddy grouses. "Let's build a whole lot of roads, and everything will be great." Examined together, Nickels's positions on the monorail and the viaduct reveal why he's such a fundamental disappointment to those of us who once supported him.
Nickels had a track record of aggressively defying Seattle's suburban aesthetic pretty much at will. He upended neighborhood plans in places like Northgate and Greenwood and Ballard with a brass-knuckles political style that forced Seattle's obstructionists to accept change. However, as we've now learned, when it comes to transportation, Nickels pulled out the brass knuckles in defense of a $5 billion roads project (the tunnel) instead of a $1.4 billion elevated mass transit project (the monorail). Thanks, Mayor Gridlock.
In contrast, Nickels was cowardly about the monorail. Rather than making the case that Seattle needs elevated mass transit and, come on you crybabies, half of Seattle's car owners would have paid less than $1.50 per week for it, Nickels sided with the monorail lynch mob. To hell with Kyoto and a dense, livable city.
Even more infuriating, Nickels's chief complaint about the monorail's turnaround plan was that the agency only had $1 billion to spend (according to Nickels), but was coming in with a $1.4 billion construction plan—$400,000,000 or 40 percent, over budget, by the mayor's calculations. But Mayor Gridlock only has $2.4 billion to spend on the viaduct tunnel, and his plan is coming in at $4.6 billion—$2.2 billion or 92 percent over budget! (Can Nickels promise that any bonds the public sells to finance his highway plan won't have a payback schedule longer than 30 years, another demand he made of the monorail agency?) Hey, Greg, how about we give you four weeks to come up with that plan?
The point being: What a hypocrite. When it came to a critical elevated mass transit project, Nickels raised financial objections. When it comes to accommodating the automobile, fouling the air and choking our streets with traffic, Nickels damns the financial realities and throws all his political weight behind it.
Last September, on the afternoon that Nickels came out against the monorail, I reached Deputy Mayor Ceis on the phone. Running through a list of questions—why was Nickels demanding a 30-year bond schedule for the monorail when the city's own debt-management policy allows for longer amortization schedules? Why all the Sound Transit double standards? Where was the finance plan for Nickels's viaduct project? And most important, what was Nickels's mass transit alternative?—Ceis just cut me off and dismissed my questions by attacking my bias. "But Josh, you support the monorail," Ceis said.
That's funny Tim, I was led to believe the mayor did too.
But that was then. That was when I thought Mayor Nickels was running Seattle. Now I know better. Mayor Gridlock is in charge now.