Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Archive of Discussion About the Development of the Seattle Monorail, First Approved Without Funding in November, 1997
Material below posted prior to November, 2000

Click here for more current information.

Seattle transit activist Don Padelford has an interesting idea: Elevated-guideway buses would meet the technology criteria of 1997 Monorail Initiative, and have advantages as well.  Here is Don's letter to Seattle City Council.

On Friday, June 30, 2000 a new monorail initiative was submitted that essentially reaffirms the previous monorail initiative. It includes $6 million for the Elevated Transportation Company for the purpose of developing a citywide monorail transportation plan and reserves $125 million of councilmanic debt capacity that could later be used  to build a monorail system. The group that submitted the initiative is called Rise Above It All. They have a website and can be reached via e-mail at

Update, March 2, 2000: After two years of work on monorail development by the volunteer board members of the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC), the Seattle Mayor and City Council are demonstrating an intent to cut off further government funding for the ETC. For the latest authoritative information, check the ETC web site at Posted there is a February 24 letter sent by the ETC Chairman to the City of Seattle that asserts "The language [of the citizen-voted monorail initiative] is clear and unequivocal. It requires that the City Council make funds available for us to accomplish our purposes either by issuing Councilmanic Revenue Bonds or raising the Business and Occupation tax."  Other news and commentary on the monorail is provided by James Bush in his story "Off the Track" in the March 2, 2000 Seattle Weekly.

Material below prepared August, 1998 or earlier:

Following a successful initiative petition campaign, Seattle voters (in-city only, not the suburbs) decided in the November 4, 1997 election to form a public development authority to "build, maintain and operate an elevated mass transit system throughout the city." Although the proposal has become popularly known as the Monorail Initiative, the measure does not use the term Monorail.

The public development authority named the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) has been formed, twelve volunteer citizen members have been appointed, and it maintains a web site at . The web site includes meeting minutes.

The initiative campaign displayed pictures of the existing Seattle Monorail, a 2-mile elevated system that was built for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. The initiative's map of a citywide system included the existing leg between downtown and Seattle Center, although recent discussions by the ETC make it clear that the routing of the Monorail is very much subject to change from what the Initiative laid out.

Three articles from the Daily Journal of Commerce provide some commentary on this initiative. One was written before the election; the other, written after the election, deals with what is likely to happen next as local officials grapple with the unexpected passage of the initiative. The third provides some commentary from a San Jose consultant - Andrew Jakes. An examination of the relationships between the RTA plan and the monorail initiative is available in a Daily Journal of Commerce article published 11/20/97.

An excellent article by Eric Scigliano entitled "Monorail and beyond: Seattle's transit of the future" is also provided.. It was first published in the Seattle Weekly, October 22, 1997. A more recent Scigliano article is entitled "Riding the Rail" (12/10/97). Another source of current information about the initiative is the website maintained by Friends of the Monorail at And, Emory Bundy has written a paper (1/5/98) on Seattle's Monorail Opportunity that is well worth reading.

It is the view of the PITF co-editors that the RTA Ten-Year Plan approved by voters in 1996 authorizes consideration of monorail as a form of "light rail" and we filed comments to that effect in response to the invitation to comment on the scope of the light rail Environmental Impact Statement in early 1998. However, the traditional "trolley car" technology of light rail as envisioned by the RTA is not going to be reconsidered, apparently.

Click here for information on the Monorail Conference initiated and co-sponsored by the Public Interest Transportation Forum in association with the Washington Institute Foundation on March 4, 1998: Finding the Money & the Right Technologies. The monorail came across as feasible with existing technology, and subject to much new technology in development. The financing was portrayed as requiring a substantial government contribution. Dick Nelson of PITF prepared a background paper issued by Washington Institute Foundation.

The experience that is most relevant to the Seattle situation is that gained in Houston during the early 1990's. An extensive monorail segment was planned for Houston that nearly made it all the way though the approval process. But, an election that resulted in a change of Mayors destroyed its political support. Still, the experience gained in developing a turnkey approach to financing, designing, building and operating the monorail in Houston's plan is highly relevant to the Seattle situation. An evaluation of this experience has been conducted for the Federal Transit Administration and the Executive Summary of this evaluation report is provided for your review.

Background information about various monorail technologies currently in operation around the world is also available. The viewer should recognize that there are a wide variety of electric automated transit technologies that could be categorized as "monorails" - it is not a narrowly defined term. The initiative specifies only that the transit technology used must be "elevated, electric and run on rubber tires". Since many people still believe that monorails cannot be switched (i.e. can only be used as shuttles between two stations), some specifics on currently available monorail switches are provided at the Switch Myth page. Several monorails are currently in use in Japan and more are being planned. A recent review of Japanese urban transit activity is available. Quicklinks to web pages that describe several monorail technologies from around the world are provided.

Back in October, 1997, in order to encourage a thorough and informative discussion of the initiative, the editors of PITF obtained from the leading proponent and a leading opponent of the Monorail Initiative their responses to a set of questions that we believed important for voters, and which remain important following the election. Go here for that Q&A.

E-Mails Received by PITF on the Seattle Monorail

Suggestion from a PITF reader:

"Instead of trying to compete with a plan that was already approved by the voters (the subway under Capital Hill in Seattle), the monorail system should try to augment it. Instead of planning to replace the subway segment of the RTA with a monorail, why not spend the money for that route on an east/west monorail line from University Village or points east of there, through the University District along 45th to the Ballard line. East/west traffic is probably the worst problem in Seattle and since there are no freeways, the monorail would be faster than driving along the Sand Point to Ballard corridor during peak and off-peak periods. This routing would also allow Metro to take hundreds of daily runs of the 43 bus and reallocate those runs to other routes, in fact increasing transit access from neighborhoods to the RTA stations, and monorail stations."

Kevin M Shively, 6/30/97

Comment from active PITF participant Jim MacIsaac:

"I am totally mystified how an unstudied concept can be sold to voters with no proposal as to how it would be financed and implemented; and just what are the next steps (and funding thereof) if the voters approve it.

"Frankly, I would rather see the $2 billion RTA light rail transit (LRT) funds held for two years, and used in part to study the monorail concept. IF the concept were to prove useful, and could be built for under $2 billion, I would like to see the majority of the RTA LRT funds transferred to such a local Seattle grade-separated public transit system, with allowance to extend a Duwamish industrial leg to Sea-Tac airport. and then extend the Rainier valley leg to Renton-Boeing. The NE and SE Seattle legs of the monorail concept would totally duplicate the RTA's LRT, and probably do the job of subregional transit service much better. The RTA's LRT concept IS NOT a phase of a REGIONAL rail system -- too slow, too many station stops. The RTA funds are a committed reality for a nonsense LRT system in terms of ever serving regional travel movements. Perhaps they could be used for a more useful concept."

Jim MacIsaac, PE, 10/16/97

PITF also received this email from a Seattle resident:

"I doubt that a monorail system is the best way to serve the city of Seattle, because its main riders will be people who live within 1/4 mile of a monorail terminal, and who are either going to a destination within 1/4 mile of another monorail terminal or to a large transfer area (such as Downtown or the U-District.) This is only a very tiny percentage of overall transit riders.

"For example, I live in lower Queen Anne, and sometimes travel to 75th & 15th in Ballard. If the monorail system were in place, I would still rather take the #15 bus (which stops two blocks from my home and stops at the corner of 75th & 15th, two blocks from the destination), rather than walk six blocks to the Seattle Center, catch a train from there to 65th & 15th, then walk another twelve blocks to the destination. I think this would be the case for a lot of transit riders. However a PRT system along these alignments with more station stops would be very appealing.

"There is also excellent (and fast) transit in place already on some of the corridors, namely U-District/Downtown and Downtown/West Seattle Junction, and poor transit on other corridors (45TH St transit is frequent but very slow.), so the proposed alignments need some more thought."

David Gottner, 10/22/97

First post-election message:

The German O-Bahn is a lot more effective than Monorail alone (or light-rail, conventional buses). The O-Bahn qualifies under the Monorail Initiative, but with a huge advantage: These conventional buses can roam throughout the neighborhoods performing the collector/feeder (capillary) function; THEN, directly enter the elevated busway/guideway (arteries) for unimpeded travel to destination stations. These buses are auto-steered on the guideway by a small curb-following roller wheel (just ahead of the right front wheel) that controls the power-steering, thus behaving like the Monorail. It could operate in the elevated mode without an operator. Operators would, however, be required to drive on the arterials leading to/from the elevated section on-ramps. Also, a growth version of O-Bahn could be the Car Bus, carrying 16 small cars per 60 foot long articulated bus (similar to our METRO beses). This method of retaining the convenience and flexibility of the personal car has been known to transit professionals since 1972 as DUAL MODE. The under the English channel Chunnel works on the same principle. Such a system would not be limited to the confines of the city of Seattle since it could operate on three surfaces: 1)elevated, 2) on neighborhood arterials, and 3) on the freeway HOV lane (converted to a busway as in Adelaide, Australia).

Another thought, dealing with the political maelstrom brought on by the Monorail Initiative, is the role of the RTA. Once the technical trades/studies have been properly and fairly done, the RTA should embrace the new plan, INITIALLY under public funding. Eventually, as the much larger costs of implementation are before us, private funding via bonds should be offered through the financial arena, as evidence builds that this NEW system will be profitable.

Dave Petrie, 11/21/97

Critical comment focusing on cost:

Dick Falkenbury [leading monorail proponent] consistently underestimates the expense of constructing a monorail. Falkenbury claims that an extended monorail can be built for $850 million; however, Bombadier of Montreal, which built the monorail cars for Walt Disney World, estimates that the cost of extending the monorail in Seattle could be as much as $2.8 BILLION. As the Seattle Times points out, that is FOUR times the cost of what it costs to build surface rail.

And, ultimately, that cost will have to paid by taxpayers. There is little incentive for private contributions, because the city is obligated to build the monorail even if it has to raise taxes. Falkenbury's suggestion that the monorail can be financed by commercial development in monorail stations is also implausible. The businesses most likely to be interested in such space are newsstands, espresso stands, and small sandwich shops. These sorts of business will not generate sufficient revenues to build an $850 million monorail, much less a $2.8 BILLION monorail.

Light rail is just as effective as the monorail, and far cheaper!!

Kenneth Einar Himma, Seattle, 12/6/97

A message from Minnesota

I have just read in today's (12/19) Minneapolis newspaper about the Monorail Initiative passing in Seattle. Congratulations!

Here in the Twin Cities we are facing the same combination of under-used mass transit and ""build another highway"" mentality that has led us into this mess in the 1st place.

I would like to contribute one idea to the mix (although no doubt someone may have already dropped this in.) The 9/30/96 issue of Business Week magazine carried a short but intriguing article about a Charleston SC firm called Futrex. They are developing an elevated mass transit system called a ""Monobeam"". The rail in question is triangular in cross section to allow trains to pass each other on either SIDE of the rail (rather than doing a straddle.) The system is built of standard, link together parts and is projected to be mounted down the median strips of existing roads and highways (no land acquisition costs!), 30-50 feet up.

Cost is estimated at $25-$28 million/ mile. If Seattle is going for a 40 mile route map, then that comes to somewhere around $1.2 billion.

I'd love to see someone here among the frozen brain politicans take a serious look at this idea. I hope Seattle can lead the way!

Way to go, Seattle!!

Carl Eeman, 12/19/97

Believes station amenities are key:

From a reader referring to the Seattle Monorail Initiative: As an actor stated in the early 90s motion picture Singles, if a private firm makes available to the public "great coffee and great music... they will park and ride." 3/4/98

History Lesson: The 1997 Seattle Voters' Pamphlet Statement on The Monorail Initiative

bulletBallot Title and Explanatory Statement
bulletComplete Text
bulletStatement For and Rebuttal
bulletStatement Against and Rebuttal

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Last modified: February 07, 2011