Second Avenue in Belltown is alive with activity. New restaurants are crammed with people, couples walk their dogs, and small packs of teenagers skateboard down the sidewalks. Despite the economy, stores seem to open every few months. Lines of people wait outside the fancy sushi spot Wasabi Bistro while across the street passersby check out the newly remodeled Rendezvous bar. Second Avenue is the heart of Belltown. It could also be one of the main arterials for the new monorail.

This November, Seattle voters will be asked to approve a 14-mile monorail route called the "Green Line." There's a chance that the Green Line will run on Fifth Avenue, site of Seattle's current two-stop monorail, but with new--and narrower--support columns, tracks, and cars. But Belltown's Second Avenue is shaping up to be the most likely street the monorail travels to get through downtown and on to West Seattle. Curiously, despite two high-profile initiatives and over 229 community meetings hosted by the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC), the group empowered by voters to come up with a monorail plan, many in Belltown still don't know a monorail may be barreling down their street.

"What? Where would it go?" says Scott Bullene, who lives in the Ellington condominiums, just off Second Avenue.

"You mean the Seattle Center monorail?" asks Rico Mceherson, owner of the Euphorico hair salon.

The monorail has come a long way since 1997, when cab driver Dick Falkenbury and lefty activist Grant Cogswell did the impossible and got I-41, the first monorail initiative, on the ballot. Over the objections of Seattle's political establishment, voters passed I-41 by a six-percent margin (53% to 47%), creating the Elevated Transportation Company. The ETC was supposed to build an X-shaped monorail system, but a hostile city government refused to cooperate with the ETC or fully fund the group--two things it was required to do by law. When a private citizen sued the city, a judge ruled that the Seattle City Council had to fully fund the ETC so that it could build the monorail plan approved by voters, or repeal I-41 and disband the ETC. The city council chose to disband the ETC.

An infuriated local transit activist named Peter Sherwin filed a second monorail initiative, I-53, which voters passed by an even wider margin in November of 2000. The second monorail initiative revived the ETC, and compelled the city to give the group $6 million to draw up a monorail plan--technology, funding, and routes--to be submitted to voters for approval in November of 2002. That plan is just about finished. The 14-mile Green Line will run from Ballard to Downtown to West Seattle. (See map.) According to the ETC, Seattle's new monorail will most likely be automated, run every four minutes, and cost anywhere from $970 million to $1.7 billion to build. The ETC envisions a combination of Seattle-only taxes and debt to pay for the building costs (an annual $140 motor vehicle excise tax is a possibility), and a combination of advertising revenue and local business contributions to pay for the $18-$25 million annual maintenance costs.

But while the plan is almost finished and the next monorail vote is just six months away, the campaign to sell it is nowhere to be seen--and that's a problem. The coming monorail vote is unlikely to be the same slam-dunk the first two monorail votes were; the monorail didn't have a billion-dollar price tag when it was voted on in 1997 and 2000. What's more, the state and regional transportation package, the housing levy, and the monorail plan may all wind up on the same ballot, resulting in a host of campaigns for worthy projects competing for the attention of voters this fall. Seattle voters may find $20 billion in new taxes on the ballot this November, and there's a very real possibility that confused, overwhelmed, or angry voters will reject everything on the ballot, including the "popular" monorail plan.

So the plan is coming together, the technology and route options are being narrowed, the ballot is going to be crowded, and the vote is just six months away.

So where the hell is the campaign?


RISE ABOVE IT ALL

On a warm evening in late spring, I-53 author and former video-repair-store owner Peter Sherwin is drinking a glass of house merlot at the Two Bells tavern in Belltown. Sherwin would be a perfect CIA agent; there's nothing particularly noticeable about his appearance. He has graying, messy hair and wears blue jeans and a standard, all-purpose blue coat. Sherwin is preparing for a meeting of Rise Above It All, his pro-monorail political action committee, but the meeting is as informal as Sherwin himself.

"Who wants spaghetti?" says Sherwin flagging down the waiter. "I love these meetings. They are a perfect chance to eat!"

Sherwin is soon joined by some campaign volunteers: Jean Darsie, an elderly King County administrator; John Peter, a timid but smart investment broker; Howard Gutknecht, a corporate communications trainer with gelled-up brown hair who looks like he's wearing makeup; and the "tech team," a group of twentysomething web designers who don't say much. The scene is straight out of a John Waters movie.

"Okay, okay, everyone, let's get this meeting started," says Sherwin, sipping his second glass of wine. He then speaks in German to one of the tech-team guys while the rest of the volunteers pretend to be amused. Sherwin, sensing he's the only one laughing, gets back to business.

"Okay, now John brought up the idea of having an Elvis impersonator at a monorail rally," Sherwin says. "Now, no offense to you John, but that's just silly. This campaign needs to get more serious now."

"But not stuffy," Darsie chimes in.

"Right, not stuffy, but just more on-message like, 'If we don't start building now, we'll be 30 years behind,'" says Sherwin, struggling to be heard over the tavern's music. "We already have the silly voters and Dick Falkenbury fans. We need to convince all the other people that monorail is the sensible thing to do," he says.

"How about Monorail Ale," Peter throws out.

Sherwin rubs his chin, considering the idea. "Yeah, I like that. Call the Hale's brewery."

While the spaghetti is served, Grant Cogswell, I-41's co-author and a recent city council candidate, shows up and takes a seat. As the jokes continue, and the German skits return, Cogswell isn't pleased.

"I just thought, I don't know," Cogswell says to me at the table, shaking his head, "that this meeting was going to be more serious and have an agenda."

Sherwin's meeting at Two Bells was informal, he tells me later, and not necessarily a direct reflection of the coming Rise Above It All campaign. Still, Sherwin says he won't be putting his campaign into high gear until the end of the summer. "We don't have a full campaign yet because the ETC plan isn't finished," Sherwin tells me after the meeting. The ETC's plan won't be finalized until August.

THE ELEVATED TRANSPORTATION COMPANY

When I-53 passed in 2000, it only gave the ETC, the voter-created monorail group, 24 months to complete a plan. It's not uncommon to be up at the ETC's office on the 36th floor of the Bank of America tower, or on some street corner downtown, and see ETC staffers literally running from one meeting to another.

"There simply isn't enough time in the day sometimes," says ETC technical planner Joel Horn.

On an average day, Horn attends up to 12 meetings in different parts of the city, checks over 100 e-mails on his pocket BlackBerry device, and runs around like it's his last day on Earth. Horn's job is to determine the best route and technology for a Seattle monorail, then plan and coordinate with engineers and consultants to make it happen. Horn may be the single best thing that has happened to the monorail since voters approved I-41 in 1997. A player in city politics for more than a decade, Horn is motivated, sharp, and politically connected. Since he joined the ETC last year in December, Horn, along with the other ETC staffers and board members like Cindi Laws, have helped transition the dreamy, intangible monorail into a credible mass-transit solution.

A few weeks ago, Horn gave a walking tour down Second Avenue with longtime Seattle developer William Justen, a man famous for rehabilitating the Smith Tower and developing the Eastlake ZymoGenetics facility. Just a few weeks before, Horn had given a similar tour to employees of the French Canadian transportation company Bombardier. (Bombardier, Hitachi, and Monorail Malaysia are potential Seattle monorail builders.) It's one of a dozen presentations he's given in the last few months. A big part of Horn's job is to "sell" the monorail to property owners who may be directly impacted, as well as get a feel for what they're willing to allow and also possibly contribute.

"You see, the columns wouldn't even have to take out a bus lane," says Horn, pointing to a row of newspaper boxes near the corner of Second and Madison. "Now imagine... a station right here," says Horn, stopping in his tracks, pointing to the other side of the street. "Think of all the retail growth that could occur. It would be amazing!"

Justen is skeptical.

"I think it would be better to stay on one side of the street," says Justen. "It will minimize the visual impact."

Though he has concerns about the exact location of the guideway and columns, Justen, like many developers and business owners, has been quite interested in the ETC's work--the advantages of monorail to local business are obvious. If the monorail runs by a Seattle storefront, for example, 54,000 commuters and tourists a day will learn the name of that business pretty fast. You couldn't ask for better advertising. If a station is nearby, increased foot traffic means increased business.

A monorail line would not only benefit businesses by delivering customers, but also the businesses' employees. Kevin Daniels, president of local real estate and development company Nitze-Stagen & Company, owns the huge Starbucks building off of First Avenue down in the Industrial District. In addition to housing the Starbucks headquarters, 30 different businesses have offices in Daniels' building. Daniels says his company would consider putting up money to help fund the monorail or a station nearby.

"We have over 5,000 employees here. Many of them have to walk four blocks away to a bus stop. We want the monorail," he says.

But convincing residents in neighborhoods like Belltown may not be as easy--and to do that, the ETC needs to start communicating with voters on a larger scale. Seattle voters, not Seattle developers, hold the fate of the monorail in their hands. But the ETC didn't launch an outreach ad campaign until very recently--in part because ETC board member and I-41 author Dick Falkenbury was opposed. In mid-April, after the ETC voted 7-1 for an upcoming information campaign, Falkenbury objected and then complained to Carol Van Noy of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

"Dick said something like, 'Have you seen these ads on the buses the ETC is planning? They're horrible and look like political advertising.' I told him I'd look into it," says Van Noy, who monitors publicly funded organizations to make sure they don't violate city campaign laws. The Ethics Commission looked at the ETC's ad package and found no violations. "The ETC's legal requirement is to put the plan on the ballot," says Van Noy, "and to do that adequately, they have to have some formal advertising to let the public know about the plan."

Falkenbury says he's not against advertising at all. He just thought the ETC's ads were too promotional. "We have to get the information out. I'm just concerned about the message. In fact, I think we should be doing more to educate the voters." The ETC's bus advertising campaign was delayed while Falkenbury's complaints were under review, but finally went up last week.

"The best way through traffic," one of the ads reads, "is over it."


THE OPPOSITION

While Sherwin's Rise Above It All meets in bars over drinks, and the ETC continues working on the plan, a monorail opposition camp is emerging.

In a crowded Northwest room of the Seattle Center on Tuesday April 23, the ETC held a public hearing to discuss the monorail's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Belltown Community Council arrived in full force.

"If you go down Second, I think you'll see a lot of lawsuits," said Zander Batchelder, president of the Belltown Community Council.

"Having the monorail run down Second," said Martin O'Donnell, who lives in the Arbor Place condos on Second and Vine and also serves on the Belltown Council, "will ruin the character of the street we've worked so hard to change."

Richard Burkowki, who leads the pro-light-rail group People for Modern Transit (PMT), also stepped up to the mic. The monorail route "seems to have a lot of very sharp turns. I think it has a real potential for engineering and cost overruns," he said.

Dick Burkhart, another monorail critic, is an engineer and a member of PMT. Burkhart seems to embody all the engineer stereotypes, with his thick glasses and pocket full of pens. He challenges many of the ETC's ridership, capital cost, and projected advertising numbers.

"The numbers seem more like sales tools than reality," said Burkhart at a recent PMT meeting in Capitol Hill.

"They're all nuts," jokes Sherwin whenever PMT comes up in conversation. Though PMT is primarily focused on the I-405 expansion (part of the regional transportation bill), the group represents a potential threat to the monorail campaign. An organized group of monorail opponents isn't something either of the previous two monorail initiatives faced--and it's evidence that the monorail's supporters need to start campaigning now, not in August when the plan is finalized.


SIX MONTHS

Some in the monorail camp are getting anxious. Horn and a number of his establishment buddies formed a political action committee on April 25 called Monorail Now! Fronted by former city council member and ETC chair Tom Weeks, Monorail Now! is full of campaign veterans and city players like venture capitalist Keith Grinstein, who chaired Maria Cantwell's successful Senate campaign, and Apple computer consultant and RealNetworks investor Mike Slade. In one of the first big moves of the campaign, Monorail Now! commissioned a $25,000 poll a few weeks ago--and the results were startling. According to the 80-question poll by local polling firm Evans/McDonough, 66 percent of Seattle voters said they would vote for the monorail even if it cost them $170 a year in new taxes. (Eighty percent were in favor before learning of the costs.)

"I've never seen support for a new spending measure this high in 14 years of polling," said Evans/McDonough co-founder Don McDonough.

Monorail Now! was formed partially out of frustration with the slow pace of Sherwin's Rise Above It All (although Sherwin was invited to sit on Monorail Now!'s steering committee). While Sherwin is talking Elvis and beer with his supporters, Monorail Now! is raising real money for polls and TV commercials. (Though a July 4th Rise Above It All fundraiser and monorail poster-design competition is in the works.)

But with two monorail campaign organizations in town, it seems strange that we're seeing and hearing so little about the plan and the coming vote. The ETC's bus ads are out there, but they are only on 95 buses. Rise Above It All and Monorail Now! are not out there campaigning.

"[Monorail supporters] need to start controlling the message now," says Christian Sinderman, a political consultant for Northwest Passage who worked on Senator Maria Cantwell's campaign, "or it will be defined for them." Look at Greg Nickels' mayoral campaign. Nickels started campaigning two years before last year's mayoral election--and he won only by a tiny margin. The ETC has done an impressive amount of work in just 18 months. It passed the needed monorail tax legislation in Olympia when no one thought it could, and has put together a solid plan. So far Rise Above It All and Monorail Now! seem content to bury their heads in the logistical engineering side of the project and wait for the results. Meanwhile, no one is keeping voters who don't attend community meetings (i.e., the vast majority of voters) informed about the plan.

For its part, the ETC could be doing more than bus ads and upcoming announcements in the dailies. The ETC has roughly $500,000 of untapped funds in its budget that could be spent on radio spots, polls, print ads, and mailers. But instead, the ETC is planning to give the money back to the city. It's a political move that allows the ETC to say, "The monorail is on time and under budget"--clearly an attempt to draw flattering comparisons to Sound Transit's delayed and over-budget light-rail plan. But voters gave the ETC $6 million last year to come up with a plan to build the monorail, and the ETC shouldn't be shy about spending that money to get the monorail built--and the monorail can't be built if voters don't say yes this November.

Seattle Weekly recently complained that Seattle lacked an anti-monorail campaign. Wrong. What Seattle doesn't have right now is a fully functioning pro-monorail campaign.

pat@thestranger.com

Support The Stranger