Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell is trying to resurrect a Ballard-to-West Seattle monorail plan. But just about any semblance of broad public support is gone.
Citizen Petition No. 1 was organized by Campbell and a few advisers, working as the Century Transportation Authority (CenTran), some nine years after the collapse of a stronger agency, the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP).
The measure would impose a $5 license-tab fee on used vehicles inside Seattle, raising $2 million a year to plan a monorail.
But it’s questionable whether CenTran is capable of carrying out its mission.
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Some of the people listed as board members or technical advisers are uninvolved or, in at least two cases, opposed to the measure. There’s only one campaign donor beyond Campbell.
Business leaders, school-board members and financiers declined her invitation to lend support, she said. Even “second-tier types,” who serve in neighborhood councils, have shied away, she said.
The measure is even opposed by some leaders in earlier monorail campaigns.
The campaign budget of less than $5,000 means some voters may first learn of the measure when they open their ballots.
“This thing has come out of the woodwork, in comparison, to tell the truth, to how well organized the other one (SMP) was,” observes Jud Marquardt, partner in LMN Architects and former member of Citizens Against the Monorail, which organized to fight the SMP.
Campbell has previously run for mayor, led a petition drive that gathered 27,000 signatures against the Highway 99 tunnel, and served for years on Magnolia neighborhood groups. She said she’s accustomed to holding strong opinions, and to being isolated.
“I am actually about doing something, and a lot of the people, they’re not brave enough to do something, to go for broke,” said Campbell, whose careers before politics included owning a bakery and developing elder-care campuses.
She believes there’s an underlying population in Seattle that’s dissatisfied with transportation in the city.
“If this passed, I’d have people lining up to say, ‘I’m interested in this,’ ” she said.
CenTran proposes a 16-mile line along the Seattle waterfront from Ballard to West Seattle. A smaller circulator loop would carry people between Alaskan Way and downtown jobs.
Its path to the ballot required only 1 percent of Seattle voters, or 4,582 valid signatures, under a leftover 2002 state law written to aid SMP. CenTran submitted twice that count to King County Elections and easily qualified.
The sole funder for the signature drive was Lee Rabie, a retired businessman, who gave $21,342. (Rabie previously gave $61,815 to another Campbell campaign, Seattle Citizens Against the Tunnel.) Two-thirds of that went to compensate Campbell and her signature collectors.
For the fall campaign, CenTran reports $4,529 raised. All of that came from Campbell, except $1,000 from the Washington State Association of Electrical Workers. The $1,000 level “is more of a support gesture,” whereas $5,000 would indicate “real support,” said Lee Newgent, executive secretary for the Seattle Building & Construction Trades Council.
Other developments illustrate the makeshift nature of the campaign:
• CenTran missed King County Elections’ deadline to file a “for” statement in the Nov. 4 voters’ guide, so that area is blank.
• Campbell infuriated The Stranger by not attending the weekly paper’s endorsement interview. William Popp, a longtime Bellevue traffic engineer, showed up to represent CenTran, but says he wasn’t interviewed.
• Campaign manager Libby Carr, whose op-ed covered the Westside Weekly’s front page Sept. 26, is gone.
• Asked to endorse the measure, West Seattle Transportation Coalition board members voted 10-1 to decline an endorsement. “Nobody wanted to slam the door in their face, basically, because the consensus was, it wasn’t going to pass,” said co-founder Joe Szilagyi, explaining why they didn’t endorse a harsher “no” position.
• Two of six listed board members are out. One of them, Yusuf Cabdi, an advocate for African immigrants and a former Seattle Housing Authority board member, said he spoke with Campbell long ago, but is unfamiliar with the monorail. “Anything that will take money from the taxpayers, I’m not aligned with that,” he said.
Another, Al Runte, historian and author of books about railroads and national parks, said he’s too busy writing and speaking to serve with CenTran, but supports monorail as a better option than forcing passenger trains into tunnels, as designed by Sound Transit.
CenTran’s website also lists as special adviser Paul Toliver, former King County transportation director and SMP board member. But he has moved east to become deputy director of the Detroit Department of Transportation.
Those remaining include Jake Solomon, a Bellevue sales representative, who agreed to join the CenTran board solely to promote small “personal rapid-transit” vehicles, as launched this year in Korea, as a loop between a waterfront route and downtown.
He vouched for Campbell’s skills. “I believe she has a lot of smarts. She knows the system, she knows the politics,” he said.
Aim: tackling gridlock
Popp, the Bellevue traffic engineer, says he’s donating his work on alignment ideas — for instance, a monorail station where the Alaskan Way Viaduct now exits into downtown.
He points to a gridlock disaster: Some drivers will avoid the tolled Highway 99 tunnel, and there’s no sign city arterial streets will gain capacity. “The buses aren’t going to work that well, even RapidRide,” Popp said. “You can’t give every bus its own green light and have any kind of arterial traffic. It [monorail] can be built so fast, it has a significant leg up on the alternatives.”
On the other hand, CenTran’s proposal to use the waterfront assumes the city and state would give up newly created right of way, after the tunnel replaces the Viaduct. That land has been designated for parks or bike lanes.
Campbell argues that former monorail-engineering studies can be dusted off and put to work quickly.
That’s debatable. Unlike this proposal, SMP’s Green Line went through Seattle Center, down Second Avenue instead of the waterfront, and on the high West Seattle Bridge deck. Even where the routes match, new property would be needed, because old station sites were sold and redeveloped.
As a transportation authority, CenTran could issue taxpayer-funded debt, with no sunset date.
The petition calls for four staffers, board member pay of $1,000 a month, grants of up to $5,000 for citizens to do monorail research, and a governance structure that prescribes 34 ruling and advisory positions.
“A plan for the process to plan,” says Dick Falkenbury, who helped lead Seattle’s grass-roots monorail campaigns in the ’90s and ’00s, but opposed the Campbell plan, in a Crosscut essay. Campbell replies it would allow new people to participate, by avoiding the usual government channels.
The CenTran board itself would decide when to retire the $5 fee by giving up on the monorail, or by pushing ahead with a larger tax measure to build the system.
The petition requires a monorail headquarters be outside downtown, with “ample parking,” something Campbell said brings a populist streak.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit is building its downtown-to-Northgate tunnels, and drawing concepts for Ballard and West Seattle light-rail lines, potentially to be featured in a 2016 “Sound Transit 3” tax measure. These might cost $3 billion for Ballard and $4 billion for West Seattle — figures daunting enough to keep the pro-monorail argument alive.
Kim Pedersen, president of The Monorail Society, says the CenTran measure is biting off too much. He suggests expanding the Seattle Center Monorail to the sports stadiums, then proceeding one segment at a time.
Cleve Stockmeyer, who was formerly an elected SMP board member, is listed as a CenTran adviser but says, “I’m not voting for it; you can vote for it if you want to.”
Campbell said she should have removed Stockmeyer’s name. And in some other cases, she listed as technical advisers people who have answered her questions in the past.
Seattle doesn’t need another transit-planning agency, Stockmeyer says. On the other hand, he says officialdom has yet to offer something better than SMP’s unbuilt $2.1 billion, 14-mile Green Line.
“The real issue is, how many generations is it going to take for us to get multiple lines converging downtown?” he said.
So if monorail rumblings make politicians focus on moving high-capacity transit faster, fine with him.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter@Mikelindblom