This hotly anticipated latest proposal, which SMP director Joel Horn will discuss with the agency's board on Wednesday night, finally outlines many of the details of the Ballard-to-downtown-to-West-Seattle monorail line.
As with any major public works project, there are controversial issues surrounding the proposal and the usual anti-monorail/anti-rapid-transit crew will find plenty to complain about. (We'll be hearing a lot about the number of stations.) But after four pro-monorail votes, the existence of a concrete, bonded proposal is an exciting development. Seattle is closer to getting elevated rapid transit than it has ever been before. The bonded proposal is not the final bid, but it brings negotiations much closer to a conclusion.
Now Horn is in a position to specify requirements that Cascadia must meet before the agency will sign the contract: the length of the line itself; and some details about what monorail guideways, trains, and stations will look like.
This latest proposal, secured by a $25 million bond from Cascadia intended to guarantee the line will be built, marks a major milestone for the monorail project, which has been delayed by legal challenges, battles in the state legislature, and a failed campaign to "recall" the agency. No one at the SMP would reveal or discuss the exact details of Cascadia's proposal, but interviews with both Horn and board members provide a sense of how this system is likely to look.
The biggest question in many people's minds--how many stations will be ready when the system opens?--remains officially unanswered in Cascadia's proposal, but it's easy to discern which ones will probably be delayed past the monorail's opening date. The land for several stations--including the Federal Reserve stop at Second Avenue and Madison Street and the Pike Place Market station at Second and Pike Street--has not yet been purchased; and, as Horn notes, "We can't build stations that we don't own the property for." The Federal Reserve land is owned by the federal government, which won't be ready to relocate by the time construction begins; and the land at Second and Pike may be redeveloped as a 400-foot-tall condo tower with a monorail station at its base. That redevelopment, however, will only happen if the developer wins city council approval of the 36-story tower, which is 15 stories higher than city regulations currently allow.
Three more stations--one at the intersection of West Mercer Street and Elliott Avenue West, one in SoDo at First Avenue South and South Lander Street, and another in West Seattle at 35th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Avalon Way--would all have fewer than 2,000 riders daily in 2030, according to the latest agency projections, making their construction a lower priority.
While Horn is quick to point out that the plan voters approved in 2002 did not guarantee that the initial monorail line would include all 19 stations (instead, it authorizes "up to 19" stations, and directs the board to determine the exact number at a later date), delaying the construction of stations is politically risky. Board member Cindi Laws opposes building fewer than 19 stations.
"I believe we promised 19 stations," says Laws. "I think we implied that there would be 19 stations up front. I'm really concerned about retracting on that."
But regardless of how many stations the agency ultimately builds, Horn insists the final proposal will include funding for all 19. "We won't bring this forward unless we can build all 19 stations," Horn says. He adds that even if certain stations are delayed, the agency will still buy the land needed for them, flatten the tracks near the location of delayed stations, and build needed computer systems and other infrastructure. All these measures will allow delayed stations to be built at some point in the future, Horn says.
How many stations do get deferred (and until when) will be one subject of the monorail's still-ongoing negotiations with Cascadia, which agency staff now anticipate will wrap up in June or July. (On Wednesday the board will also discuss whether to set a deadline on negotiations.) While some board members, like Laws, support building as many stations as possible right away, others, including Cleve Stockmeyer, argue that while too many delays would be seen as a violation of the SMP's "soft commitment to build what people expect," a certain number of deferrals may be justified.
"I'm not going to lose sleep if we don't build one or two stations because we don't have the land," Stockmeyer says. In addition, "there are some that have really low ridership or where the community was divided" about whether a station should be built.
The proposal does include some guarantees. Likely to be among them: the length of the line (14 miles); some details about the stations (they will be "safe, easy to use… have fast elevators, [and] meet our sustainability goals"); details about safety measures (an emergency walkway will be included along the length of the guideway); and general information about financial feasibility (the line will be built under existing financial constraints, which include a $1.5 billion bond cap--or $1.69 billion, adjusted for inflation--and a 1.4 percent Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.)
Horn's presentation will certainly leave unanswered what the bidder's current price actually is (the final price won't be available until negotiations conclude this summer); detailed pictures of individual stations; and how much of the line will run on a single track, rather than side-by-side double rails. Board members and monorail critics have raised questions about whether single-tracking, in which trains wait their turn to travel in opposite directions along a single track, will reduce the reliability and safety of the line; the latest proposal reportedly reduces the amount of single-tracking along the 14 miles.
The proposal, which presents a far from complete picture of what the monorail will look like and cost, is mixed news for the monorail agency. Some of the details--like the news that the monorail can be built under existing financial constraints--will reinvigorate monorail supporters. Others--like the specter of as many as five station deferrals--could cause political problems for the board if it approves an initial line with fewer than 19 stations.
On the other hand, the photos and video that were to be released on Wednesday-- the first glimpse the public will get of the actual monorail trains and guideways that Cascadia is proposing--are stunning. The images show expansive train interiors and a sleek white train gliding 60 feet over Seattle Center--a startling image that belies critics' claims that the monorail will destroy the "pristine" environment at the Center. Instead, it will add action to Seattle Center--which is precisely what rapid transit does for cities.
To see the SMP's video of the monorail moving through Seattle Center, go to click here.