The Monorail Episode Redux
Seattle's lengthy flirtation with a municipal monorail came to an end in yesterday's municipal elections. Voters who had approved pro-monorail initiatives in four separate previous elections finally ran out of patience with a public works project whose budget had ballooned far beyond initial estimates. By the date of Tuesday's vote, Seattle had spent $200 million on the monorail without laying any track. A bit over $60 million of this money went toward land and right-of-way acquisition, but tens of millions were spent on consultants' reports, feasibility studies, staffing, hundreds of public meetings, debt service, and, of course, legal fees. Having shut down the monorail, Seattle voters have absorbed an enormous sunk cost, and Seattle motorists can expect to pay hundreds of dollars each in monorail taxes over the next several years so that the project can pay off its debts. Anyone who has watched a classic Simpsons' episode might have seen this coming.
There are a number of lessons here.
The first is that the costs associated with mass transit innovation are enormous and probably shouldn't be borne by a municipality in the absence of more substantial federal assistance. The success of Seattle's wonderful little monorail line running from the Space Needle to downtown helped convince voters to throw millions of dollars at a technology that had never been proven as a basis for a large scale mass transit system. Seattle's willingness to be a guinea pig for a promising but ultimately costly technology probably won't be emulated.
The second lesson is that too much political process can be a bad thing. My colleague, Adam Samaha, has a fascinating forthcoming paper on "undue process" in the Terry Schiavo litigation, and the analogs to political processes seem clear. Seattle held so many referendums on the monorail, solicited so much input from neighborhood groups, stakeholders, and the like, and spent so much time fighting about how to build a perfect monorail that a decent monorail could never get off the ground. Engineers and politicians found themselves going back to the drawing board so many times that the initial enthusiasm about the project was squandered .
The third lesson is that direct democracy is a flawed approach for transportation planning. Urban planners in Seattle sounded the alarm about the monorail from the start, but the gee-whiz coolness of the technology, combined with the anticipated pleasure of a virtually silent high speed train whizzing above the traffic and providing gorgeous views of a beautiful city captured the public's imagination in a way that propeled successive electorates to endorse the idea. Transportation planning is a technocratic exercise, and mandating ends (build a comprehensive public transportation system by 2020 using mass transit vehicles that won't be slowed by roadway gridlock) while leaving means to legislators and urban planners seems far better than the opposite approach.