The Seattle Monorail Project was a proposed five-line monorail system to be constructed in Seattle, Washington as an extension of the existing Seattle Center Monorail. The 14-mile (23 km), 17 station Green Line running from Ballard to West Seattle via Seattle Center would have been the first of the five lines to be built.
From 1997 to 2005 the monorail project was a highly contentious political issue in the Seattle area. In November 2005, following the fifth voter initiative on the monorail in eight years, the monorail authority agreed to dissolve itself after having spent $124.7 million in taxpayer funds without beginning any monorail construction.
The effort to extend the monorail began in 1997 with the 53% to 47% passage of Initiative 41 by Seattle voters. The initiative proposed a 54-mile (87 km) X-shaped monorail system extending the 1.4-mile (2.3 km) line constructed for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. The system's construction and operation was to be carried out by a new agency, the Elevated Transportation Corporation (ETC), using private funding.
The ETC quickly determined that private entrepreneurs were not going to build a monorail system without public financial support, leading to a second monorail initiative, allowing the ETC to spend $6 million for additional studies to determine an improved monorail plan with full cost estimates and a funding package to pay for construction. This initiative passed 56% to 44% in 2000.
By 2002, the ETC had developed the five-line system plan that came to be called the Seattle Monorail Project. This proposal was put before the voters as Citizens Petition #1 in November 2002 which would propose to dissolve the ETC, create a new monorail agency, construct the Green Line as the first part of the system, and enact an annual 1.4% motor-vehicle excise tax (MVET) on Seattle vehicles to fund the project.
The 2002 petition drew opposition from groups who argued that: the Green Line ridership would not be significantly different from that already achieved by Metro buses; that building an elevated line with 7-foot (2.1 m) deep concrete beams on Second Avenue in downtown would create a "wall" through the urban core; and that the monorail line should be built along the I-5 freeway corridor, among other complaints.
Reflecting the increased opposition, Citizens Petition #1 passed by just 877 votes, 50.2% to 49.7%. With this November 2002 passage, construction was expected to begin in autumn 2005, and be completed in 2009.
Just two years later in November 2004, a recall initiative, I-83, was put forth seeking to halt the project by forcing the city to deny the monorail agency the right to use the air space above public city streets. This fourth initiative in seven years proved unpopular with Seattle voters however, and lost 64% to 36%.
Financing troubles & defeat
The tax to fund the project began effective June 2003, and was levied annually on each car registered in the city based on the MSRP of the vehicle and a fixed depreciation table. In 2005, the average monorail tax per vehicle was $130 annually.
The project soon fell under intense public scrutiny, when actual revenue from the motor vehicle excise tax came in 30% under projections while projected costs rose by 10%. To bridge the shortfall, the SMP initially proposed extending the tax and bond repayments over a 50-year time horizon, resulting in nearly $9 billion in interest paid on the $2 billion construction. The plan proved highly controversial and five days later the SMP withdrew its financial plan and the director and board chairman resigned under pressure.
The then-Mayor Greg Nickels gave the board an ultimatum to create a new plan or lose city support for the project. A new plan was not developed, and on September 16, 2005, Nickels withdrew city support for the project. While the city of Seattle could not officially stop the project, it could withhold permission to build on or above city land, as had been proposed under I-83 a year earlier. Nickels also called on the Seattle Monorail Project to put a measure on the November 2005 ballot to determine whether or not to continue with the project, marking the fifth time Seattleites had voted on the issue. This measure shortened the initial phase of the Green Line to 10.6 miles (17.1 km) with the remaining 3.4 miles (5.5 km) to be added later, and the SMP said it would dissolve itself if the measure failed.
Proposition 1 was defeated, 65% to 35%, and in response the SMP reduced staff, terminated the annual motor vehicle excise tax on Seattle vehicles effective June 30, 2006 (three years after it was first implemented) and began liquidating properties already purchased for the Green Line.
The Seattle Monorail Authority was formally dissolved on January 17, 2008, after liquidating all of its assets, repaying its debts, and transferring its remaining $425,963.07 to the King County Metro system. The monorail project ultimately cost Seattle taxpayers $124.7 million.