Lately I've been spending an increasing amount of time thinking about Seattle Area Transit. The answer to most transit questions is 100 Billion dollars (imagine Dr. Evil saying it). In my interest to find a different answer I've wandered around the Puget Sound area riding the mass transit that we do have with an interest in how we could improve our transit situation without spending the aforementioned 100 Billion dollars. We have many half ass transit solutions - buses that act like trains and fail, trains that go nowhere near where they're needed, light rail that only services airports, light rail that only services businesses within walking distance and monorail that only has two stops - neither of which are very far apart.

Seattle is known for a couple of things - the Space Needle, Grunge Bands, Coffee and the Monorail. There's been many debates about the monorail and we even came very close to expanding it all over the city. It's loved and hated but most of all it's just a tourist attraction for many. People who drive or walk say the monorail is ugly. People who want to use it are frustrated that it goes "nowhere" and they can't transfer to it. Most agree that it's dilapidated and in need of repair. Some think it needs to be torn down. All are probably right. I set out to see if the monorail had any value at all and below is my experience with it.

We wanted to go into the city for the Artisan Food Festival at Pike Place Market. The problem with Pike Place is there's nowhere to park. If you want to park in the parking garage you'll quickly find out that the normal rates don't apply during special events and the "deal" they give you is about 3x more expensive than usual. This means you're looking at between $10 and $15 to park your car for half a day. Ideally we'd have light rail from the suburbs to downtown Seattle but we have to wait another 20 years for that. Being Sunday the Sounder train and all Community Transit buses aren't running so we have no other choice but to drive. It would be nice to park somewhere else and ride transit to Pike Place market and since it's Sunday we could park on the street for free - enter the Monorail. Parking at the Seattle Center is fairly easy on Sunday and the Monorail goes from the Seattle Center to Westlake Center very near Pike Place Market. The cost for a round trip ticket on the Monorail is $4 for an adult. The total cost for the four of us was $12 or roughly what it would have cost to put the car in the parking garage but this way was more interesting and fun.

We parked on the street near the Seattle Center and walked to the Monorail near the Space Needle. Tickets are bought at a booth and boarding is done on an elevated platform. The Monorail is just that, it's a rubber tired train that rides on one tall concrete rail. On leaving the Seattle Center Station it passes through the Experience Music Project and flies through the city at speeds up to 45 mph. The Monorail was built nearly 50 years ago and is showing it's age. The concrete pillars holding it up are massive and ugly, it barely goes anywhere and yet there's something about it that only riding it will reveal - it's by far the best way to see the city. I feel sad now that they didn't expand it years ago. There's an emotional element to the monorail that you just don't have riding a bus, streetcar or light rail - you feel like you're flying.

The Monorail is a success from an economical standpoint. It's run by a private organization for the city of Seattle and is reported to be the only mass transit in the country to make money. The reason it makes money is it's not integrated into any transit system, it's only about 1 mile long and it's mostly tourists riding it. This is all fine and good but is it a solution to ANY transit problem? I think yes, but with reservations. It does go somewhere - Seattle Center to Westlake Plaza. Westlake is the terminus to the Central Link Light Rail and also a major bus station, a Sound Transit stop and the terminus for the South Lake Union Train (S.L.U.T.). Seattle Center on the other end is of course a very popular destination for Seattlites and tourists alike. The Monorail is fun to ride, reasonably comfortable (in a early 60s futuristic sort of way) and definitely fast. The downside is that in typical Seattle form it's not integrated into the transit scene. Because Seattle has so many different transit systems it's hard to figure out who you're supposed to be paying. Downtown alone you could catch the Waterfront Trolley (run by Metro), Metro buses, Sound Transit buses, Link Light Rail (Sound Transit), South Lake Union Trolley (Metro), Pierce County transit buses, Community Transit buses and the Monorail (private). Crazy or what? We now have the ORCA card which is supposed to allow one form of payment for all of these and transfers between systems. The Waterfront Trolley no longer exists, Metro, Sound Transit, Community Transit, Pierce Transit and Link Light Rail all use the ORCA card. But InterCity Transit does not and the 603 bus shared by Pierce and InterCity does not. The Monorail and the South Lake Union Trolley also don't take the ORCA card. Less crazy? Perhaps but it's still a mess. Here's what I think should be done.

  1. The Seattle Monorail needs to take the ORCA

  2. The South Lake Union Trolley needs to be expanded to the U District and take the ORCA

  3. The Waterfront Trolley needs to be brought back, extended up the hill to Seattle Center and take the ORCA

Let's think about this for a moment. Buses from the eastside and North of Seattle all converge on Westlake Plaza. Buses, Central Link Light rail and Sounder commuter rail converge at the International District. These two areas are connected via Central Link Light rail and the bus tunnel.

Popular destinations for residents AND tourists with the form of transit that would service it under my plan.

  1. Pioneer Square (Central Link light rail, Waterfront Trolley, Sounder Train)

  2. International District (Central Link light rail, Waterfront Trolley, Sounder Train)

  3. Waterfront (Watefront Trolley)

  4. Westlake Plaza (Central Link light rail, Sound Transit Buses, Monorail, S.L.U.T.)

  5. Pike Place Market (Central Link light rail, Sound Transit Buses, Monorail, S.L.U.T.)

  6. Seattle Center (Seattle Monorail, Waterfront Trolley)

Tourists coming from the Seatac airport on Link Light Rail would go to International District or Westlake. Tacoma Residents would ride the Sounder to the International District. Northend residents would ride Sound Transit buses to Westlake or the Sounder to the International District. From these locations all 6 of the popular destinations could be reached.

In order for this to happen the Waterfront Trolley would need to be brought back. I think too that it should have it's tracks lengthened to the Seattle Center. The Monorail needs to accept the ORCA card. Since most of the current 7000 riders a day are tourists this will not impact locals and if anything would increase ridership. This would also allow us to transfer from other forms of transportation. With these changes we'd have Light Rail/Monorail from the International District to Seattle Center through the center of town and Waterfront Trolley from the International District to Seattle Center along the waterfront.

The odd man out is the S.L.U.T.. Outside of having an awesome name it's mostly worthless. It too meets at Westlake Plaza but only goes to South Lake Union and the reason it even exists is still a mystery. It's slow, it goes nowhere and it doesn't take the ORCA. My opinion is that they need to extend it along Fairview Ave to the University District and connect with the University Link Station that's currently under construction. When the extension to the Light Rail to University Station gets completed we'd have a light rail line from Westlake to Capital Hill and then the University of Washington. The S.L.U.T. would provide a link from Westlake to University District by way of South Lake Union. All of these changes are fairly small (in comparison to the billions being spent on Link Light Rail) and would substantially improve on what we have. First Hill and Queen Anne Hill would not be served but there's a plan for a Streetcar on First Hill that would connect Capital Hill Link station to Union Station. I haven't decided whether that's a good idea or not.

Another interesting development is the purchase of the Eastside Rail Corridor by the Port of Seattle which gets us rail lines from Woodenville to Renton along the eastside. If those tracks could be lengthened to Tukwilla they could connect to the Sounder/Amtrak tracks. In combination with the East Link Light Rail we'd have a connection from Renton to Bellevue, Seattle to Bellevue, Bellevue to Redmond and Bellevue to Woodenville.

My main motivation for wanting the Monorail to take the ORCA card is so I can transfer. What are the negatives to the Monorail taking the ORCA card? None really since most of the passengers now are probably tourists. I think taking the ORCA would increase ridership, allow northerners to transfer from the 511 bus to the Monorail and allow southerners to transfer from the Link Light Rail to the Monorail. This I think would be a win/win situation.

What will probably happen is the Monorail will get torn down, the Waterfront Trolley will never run again. the S.L.U.T. will continue to be useless outside of t-shirt sales and the Eastside Rail Corridor will be made into a bike path - sigh.