Seattle Monorail Project Goes Off Track

This is the 1962 World's Fair monorail, which still operates in Seattle.

hide captionA view of the 1962 World's Fair monorail, which still operates in Seattle.

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In the 1990s, Seattle voters backed a plan to build an elevated train through 14 miles of the most congested parts of the city. But the estimated price tag has risen to $11 billion, prompting talk that the project may be abandoned.

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Seattle's long-running dream of a monorail transit system has hit a rough patch of track. The agency charged with building the train has scandalized the city with a huge price tag and now there's talk of abandoning the idea once and for all. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, it may be the end of the line for Seattle's infatuation with a mode of transportation both futuristic and retro.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

The city fathers have been talking about building a monorail here as far back as 1910. But the city really caught the bug during the 1962 World's Fair.

(Soundbite of 1962 World's Fair)

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to the future and all the wonders of the 21st century in the greatest preview the world has ever seen.

(Soundbite of song)

Group: (Singing) Take a ...(unintelligible) look at tomorrow.

KASTE: A highlight of this world of tomorrow was the mile-long elevated train linking the fairgrounds to downtown Seattle.

Unidentified Man #2: The monorail, its zippy, almost mile-a-minute ride will be a novel thrill in itself, as well as a test of one possible solution to the country's urban transportation problems.

KASTE: The fair ended, but Seattleites didn't forget the monorail. The dream was reborn in the 1990s with a movement to build a line across town. Voters said yes and it looked as if Seattle would finally get its 21st-century mass transit...

(Soundbite of music being shut down)

KASTE: ...until this summer. Voters got a look at the cost, $11 billion for 14 miles, and most of that interest payments, and the mood has turned ugly.

Unidentified Man #3: I hate the monorail. I hate taxes that are excessive.

KASTE: Angry protesters have packed public hearings on the project and the agency's top leaders resigned in disgrace. The agency is now scrambling for ways to redesign and save the monorail. Krista Camenzind works for the anti-monorail group called OnTrack. She says the plan was never grounded in reality.

Ms. KRISTA CAMENZIND (OnTrack): This project came about because a small group of people really believed and loved the monorail as a technology and they tapped into Seattleites' unhappiness with our inability to get major transportation projects built.

KASTE: Monorail boosters bristle at the suggestion that they're blinded by the train's `Gee-whiz' factor. Dick Falkenberry is the cabdriver who started the movement in the 1990s.

Mr. DICK FALKENBERRY: I have no pictures of Dr. Spock. I've never watched a "Star Trek" episode. OK? What I'm concerned about is my city and what I see is, is that traffic and the building of a city around the automobile is a huge mistake.

KASTE: But the sci-fi appeal is undeniable. The monorail agency's logo is a stylized art-deco train straight out of "Buck Rogers." The retro futurism rap has long dogged the monorail movement, admits another one of the founders, Grant Cogswell.

Mr. GRANT COGSWELL: It doesn't help that my last name's Cogswell, which is on "The Jetsons" too.

KASTE: That's Cogswell Cogs, the boss at the rival company in the cartoon world of George Jetson. But Grant Cogswell says none of this has anything to do with why he's for the monorail. He says he's in it because he's sick of Seattle's car culture.

Mr. COGSWELL: This is about global warming, it is about oil-based foreign policy and it's also about a kind of suburban isolation that I think is anti-democratic and anti-humane and no fun whatsoever.

(Soundbite of monorail)

KASTE: The original World's Fair monorail still whizzes along over Seattle's congested streets. It's the quickest way from downtown to the Space Needle, not to mention the nearby Science Fiction Museum. Many Seattleites see it as a daily reminder of what the future used to look like, and some of them aren't ready yet to give up on that vision. A few days ago, an anonymous donor sent the agency a personal check for $20,000 in hopes of moving the monorail a little bit closer to reality.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(Soundbite of futuristic music)

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