A New Seattle Monorail:

Background and Issues

This paper was prepared by Dick Nelson and presented by the Washington Institute Foundation to all those who attended and participated in a conference entitled, "The Monorail in Seattle: Finding the Money and the Right Technologies."  The conference was held on March 4, 1998 at Seattle Center.

Voter’s Decisions

At the general election held on November 4, 1997, Seattle voters adopted Proposition 1, a citizen-sponsored initiative establishing a public development authority, the Elevated Transportation Corporation (ETC), for the purpose of building a city wide mass transportation system. At a previous election on November 5, 1996, voters of the three central Puget Sound counties, including Seattle voters, authorized the development of a regional transit system under the direction of the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA).

The 1997 ballot measure, popularly know as the Monorail Initiative, specified that the system be principally elevated and electric powered, and that it run on rubber tires. It also generally designated the system’s station locations. And it indicated that the ETC should seek non-government monies before turning to government financing. The earlier election decision provided the RTA authority to collect sales and motor vehicle excise tax revenues to fund a program involving light rail, commuter rail, and express buses.

Seattle’s First Monorail

Seattle’s Monorail went into service in 1963. Built by Alweg Corporation of Sweden for the Seattle World’s Fair, the Monorail operates between Westlake Center in the central business district and the Seattle Center, the site of the Fair.[1] The nonstop route is approximate one mile in length, and has two parallel elevated guide ways and two double-car train sets.

The southern terminus of the Monorail was slightly realigned in 1989 to incorporate the station in the new Westlake Center building. Operation was transferred in June 1994 by the City to a private business, Seattle Monorail Services. The Monorail carried 2.6 million riders (boardings) in 1997. Approximately two-thirds were "tourism driven"; most of the rest were "event driven."


Elevated mass transit systems extend across a large spectrum of vehicle size, guide way configuration, station spacing, propulsion devices, and control technology. Monorail vehicles can be as large as Seattle’s existing monorail, which seats 124 passengers. In contrast, PRT vehicles have been designed for as few as one person, but more commonly four or five people, the capacity of a small car. A PRT can possibly operate efficiently with just one passenger. While monorail guide ways are typically configured for longer distances between stops, the smaller PRT vehicle allows operation on a network with multiple stations. PRT systems therefore more closely replicate the operation of the private car.

Elevated systems can be propelled with "third rails" and conventional electrical rotary motors. The Seattle Monorail has such a drive system. Some systems run on induction motors. Newer designs propose the use of linear synchronous onboard motors with stators (magnetic components) embedded in the guide way. A Japanese monorail system uses magnetic levitation (MagLev) to lift and propel the vehicle. Vehicles roll on rubber wheels before levitation is achieved.

Elevated systems now operating range from those under total human control to those that are fully automated. The Seattle Monorail is "driven" by human operators who control speed. The Vancouver, BC, "Skytrain" is controlled by a central computer system. Vehicles have no human operators on board. The system can be overridden by the operators in the control center. The BART system in San Francisco has a single operator on board each train who serves as a backup safety measure. Automated "driver less" systems generally produce lower operating costs. However, driver costs for the Seattle Monorail are 10% of total operating costs.


The Monorail initiative suggests that private funds are available to build the system and that revenues needed to compensate private investors and operate the system can be realized from rents collected from commercial operations at station locations, and from parking fees and other transportation services. The ETC is given authority to build revenue-producing improvements associated with the system. A number of creative financing methods are available, some of which involve public-private arrangements.[2][3]

Traditionally, public works projects often place all of the financial risk incurred in their construction on the taxpayer. More recent experience around the world and increasingly in the United States suggests that there are new models for financing and constructing public infrastructure that tap the skills and resources of the private sector. The result of these types of arrangements are often lower project costs and more rapid construction.

Using a monorail system as an example, the new model for public-private cooperation might involve the public sector engaging in a competitive process to find a private sector partner to finance, design, build and operate part or all of the system. The private sector partner is responsible for part or all of the initial financing for the system and enters into a long-term contract (often 30-40 years) to design, build and also perhaps to operate it under a franchise agreement. Repayment of private sector financing can come from different sources, two of which include the farebox revenues once the system is up and running, and the rent from those businesses that would see the opportunity to build near the system. Government capital and operating grants or farebox subsidies might also be available in a public-private partnership financing arrangement.

A recent example of public private cooperation occured in the final phase of building the Vancouver, BC-based SkyTrain system. Land owners recognized the substantial economic value of siting stations adjacent to their property. After receiveing general instructions about routes and station locations from the public agency, three developers came forth at their own cost to finance, design, build and operate three new stations.

The addition of private sector financing is not always enough to pay for entire projects, but makes them more attractive as prospective grantees for the federal government, which is more limited than ever in its ability to disperse funds for infrastructure projects.

Integration / Travel Markets

The Monorail initiative does not address physical and fiscal integration with existing transportation systems nor with the forthcoming RTA system. As transportation economists recommend,[4][5] responsible planning for new transit systems, in addition to clarifying goals and considering cost-effective alternatives, should anticipate their impact on existing travel patterns and modes, including transportation systems already in operation. In Seattle today, these are principally the Metro bus system and private motor vehicles. Revenues for a new Monorail will be, at least in part, dependent on its ridership levels. If Monorail ridership consists mainly of existing bus riders, then Monorail fare revenues may be an insufficient contribution to the costs of construction and operation of the new system, even assuming other revenue sources.

Additionally, it may not be feasible to convert all existing bus service in areas served by the new system to feeder buses, so the cost of continuing existing bus service should be taken into account in the authorization for the total Monorail system budget.

Therefore, the identification of sources of new transit ridership is an important aspect of integrating the new monorail into the City’s total transportation network. New transit riders on the Monorail are undoubtedly going to have to be found mostly among people who are now private vehicle users who choose not to use the Metro bus.

The funded mandate of the RTA to establish both light rail and commuter rail service within Seattle city limits complicates the integration problem significantly. Closely parallel routes and missions for the planned RTA light rail and a new Seattle Monorail will likely prove to be financially impossible given the size of the market of potential riders for rapid transit. Fortunately, there is the opportunity for flexibility in the service mission and routing for the Monorail.

Chronology of Elevated Transit Studies

Over the past thirty years, several studies have analyzed public transit options in Seattle, including the Monorail.

A detailed study of the Seattle Monorail’s first six month’s of operation was made to appraise the effectiveness of the monorail as a metropolitan rapid transit facility.[6] Several efforts were initiated during the last three decades to either extend the Monorail or build a separate elevated transit system. Some of these proposals involved the concept of personal rapid transit (PRT). Most of the PRT systems were designed for well-defined areas and travel markets within the City. None reached fruition.

During the period 1969-71 Seattle was one of five medium-sized cities selected for study by the Center Cities Transportation Project.[7][8] The study recommended that Seattle seek a grant to investigate the feasibility of a "people-mover-pedestrianway system". Because of poor economic conditions, the City deferred action until 1973 when a PRT feasibility study commenced that was jointly sponsored by the City, the State Legislative Transportation Committee, the Puget Sound Governmental Conference, and the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro). The study looked at various monorail and PRT technologies and sites. It identified the Downtown-First Hill and the University District as the most appropriate sites for the initial installation of a "PRT/people mover system."[9]

In the same period, a private proposal was made for a PRT concept involving small vehicles circulating through downtown in existing public alleys. The system, called Seattle Central Alley Transit (SCAT), was the subject of a plan presented to the State legislature.[10] In a second phase, it was proposed that the private sector would implement a regional system in partnership with the city, county, state, and federal governments.

In 1975 the Puget Sound Governmental Conference analyzed transit alternatives to a new Interstate 90 bridge.[11][12] One was "Group Rapid Transit" (GRT), defined to mean vehicles seating 20-25 passengers. The study also considered GRT networks outside the I-90 corridor, for the Seattle and Bellevue CBDs. The Seattle Engineering Department also looked at the feasibility of incorporating an Alweg monorail on the existing Lake Washington Floating Bridge.[13]

Studies have also been made to extend or replace the original monorail. During 1975-77, the City developed a proposal for a downtown "people mover".[14][15] The existing Monorail would have been replaced by a new elevated system with smaller, automated cars. The system would run in a continuous loop and connect Westlake Mall with the parking garage at the Seattle Center. Other stations would have been located on the Center grounds and in the Denny Regrade.

In 1979-85, a plan was developed to improve the system, relocate the southern terminus, and allow for possible future extensions at both ends.[16][17][18] More recently, the feasibility of a monorail loop through the proposed Seattle Commons was investigated.[19] A graduate student thesis suggested five routings were feasible for extension of the monorail throughout the city.[20] Extension of the monorail from its north terminus to the Seattle Center parking garage on Mercer Street has also been the subject of a student study.[21]

A soon-to-be published report will suggest that the existing monorail should not be changed, and a new monorail should be constructed that connects Seattle’s high-density activity centers.[22]

PRT systems have also been considered by the Puget Sound cities of Bellevue [23] and, very recently, SeaTac.[24] And a concept has been outlined for a PRT circulator connecting the University District to adjacent freeway transit stations as a part of a comprehensive approach to SR 520 transportation issues.[25]

The Regional Transit Project (RTP), predecessor to the RTA, looked briefly at alternative transit technologies, including "other" guideway technologies.[26][27][28][29] The RTP’s environmental review summarized the feasibility of alternative rail technologies thusly:[30]


Resources on the Web

Monorail Conference Site (Seattle Monorail Conference): Conference agenda and background information. Information presented at conference will be posted.

Public Interest Transit Forum (http://bettertransport.info): Information and discussion of Seattle and regional transportation programs and issues, including the Monorail Initiative.

Personal Rapid Transit (http://weber.u.washington.edu/~jbs/itrans/monorail.htm): Extensive technical information on PRT and monorail systems in the US and other countries.

Friends of the Monorail (http://www.monorail.org): Information from proponents of the Monorail Initiative.

Citizens for Common Sense in Transportation (http://www.wolfenet.com/~rune/CommonSense.htm)


[1] Alweg Monorail: Fascinating Story of World’s Most Modern Transportation System, 1962.
[2] Strategies for Innovation, Transportation Innovations Project, Seattle, 1998.
[3] Innovative Financing Handbook, Federal Transit Administration, US Department of Transportation, 1995.
[4] Evaluating Rapid Transit, Thomas Deen and Richard Pratt, Chapter 11 in Public Transportation, George Gray and Lester Hoel, Eds., 2nd Ed., Prentice Hall, 1992.
[5] Big-City Transit Ridership, Deficits, and Politics, Jose Gomez-Ibanez, American Planning Association Journal, Winter 1996.
[6] Seattle Monorail Demonstration Study, Daniel Alexander, et al, Transportation Research Group, University of Washington, October 1962.
[7] Summary Report. Center City Transportation Project. Prepared by Arthur D. Little for the US Department of Transportation, Urban Mass Transportation Administration, 1970.
[8] The Center City Transportation Project and a Pedestrian Way System for Downtown Seattle, Presentation by Mayor Wes Ulman and James Braman, et al, Washington, DC, April 19, 1971.
[9] Seattle PRT Study, Interim Report, Phase I, VTN Engineers, March 18, 1974.
[10]Seattle Central Alley Transit (SCAT), A Proposal for Automated Metropolitan Transit, Phase 1 (Dowtown Circulator), John Graham and Company, Michael Baker, Jr., Inc., Westinghouse Electric Corporation, December 1973.
[11] A Survey of Mass Transit Alternatives to I-90, Puget Sound Governmental Conference, July 7, 1975.
[12] I-90 Highway/Transit Alternatives, Phase II Report. Puget Sound Governmental Conference. December 10, 1975.
[13] Feasibility Study for the Incorporation of an Alweg Monorail Mass Rapid Transit System on the Existing Lake Washington Floating Bridge, Seattle Engineering Department, 1976?.
[14] A Proposal for Designing and Constructing an Automated Downtown People Mover in Seattle, Wes Ulman and Richard Page, Submitted to US DOT, June 1976.
[15] City of Seattle Downtown People Mover: Pre-application for Capital Grant Funding to US DOT, October 1977.
[16] Seattle Monorail Improvement and Rehabilitation Plan, De Leuw, Cather & Co, September 1979.
[17] Monorail Improvement and Rehabilitation Plan, Phase II, Seattle Engineering Department, 1982.
[18]Application of the City of Seattle for UMTA Capital Grant, June 1985.
[19] Monorail Extension Study, William Eager, TDA Inc., October 1992.
[20] Monorail for Seattle, Washington: An Investigation of Possible Routes, A. Darrell George, M.S. in Civil Engineering Thesis, University of Washington, 1963.
[21] An Economic Feasibility Study of Extension of the Seattle Monorail to Connect Directly to the Seattle Center Parking Garage, Eldon C. Shierman, M. S. in Civil Engineering Thesis, University of Washington , 1971.
[22] Downtown Seattle Circulation Study, Downtown Circulation Advisory Group, to be published Summer 1998.
[23] Bellevue Downtown People Mover, Demonstration Grant Application to US DOT, June 28, 1976.
[24] City of SeaTac Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) Feasibility Project: Major Investment Study, August 1997.
[25] Dick Nelson and Don Shakow, Addressing SR 520 Corridor Transportation Problems Through a Least-Cost Planning Approach, March 1995, unpublished (see http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf/520/bridg.htm).
[26] Transit Technology Overview, Draft Final Technical Memorandum, Prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff / Kaiser Engineers for the Metro Regional Transit Project, August 17, 1992.
[27] Rail Technologies and Design Guidelines Update Report. Prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff / Kaiser Engineers for the Metro Regional Transit Project, November 6, 1991.
[28] Rail Technology Perspective Technical Memorandum, Final Draft. Prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff / Kaiser Engineers for the Metro Regional Transit Project, September 27, 1991.
[29] Rail Transit Technology and Design Guidelines. Prepared by Gannett-DeLeuw for Metro Rail Planning Study, August 1990.
[30] Final Environmental Impact Statement, Regional Transit System Plan, Metro Regional Transit Project, Vol. 1, March 1993.