Seattle Center Monorail celebrates 60 years

The elevated train has outlasted its critics, whooshing on pneumatic tires from Seattle Center to downtown.

  • Mike Lindblom, The Seattle Times
  • Wednesday, March 30, 2022 7:34am
  • NorthwestVideo

By Mike Lindblom / The Seattle Time

SEATTLE — Before entrepreneurs in Seattle won fame selling computer software or takeout coffee across the globe, the city’s vision of Century 21 soared on monorails.

Elvis rode the elevated train here during the 1962 World’s Fair, as did 8 million other visitors. The German-built rail cars, whooshing on pneumatic tires from Seattle Center to downtown, demonstrated how people might transcend surface traffic jams in the future.

With the exception of Japanese cities and Disney resorts, monorails didn’t proliferate worldwide. Not even Seattle extended its tracks north to Shoreline or south to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, two possibilities admirers pitched to the city after the fair.

Yet the Seattle Center Monorail outlasted its critics, cruising one mile at a time, from an avant-garde technology, to obsolescence, then renewal as an easy way to reach events. A public celebration Tuesday will mark approximately the 60th anniversary of opening day, March 24, 1962.

Megan Ching, the monorail’s general manager, said the monorail provides a blueprint for making public infrastructure endure.

“It has just shown a tremendous amount of care and thoughtfulness in maintaining something that I think by all accounts, probably people didn’t think would continue to be running for 60 years, and especially with the original trains still running,” Ching said.

The monorail carries an average 3,000 hockey fans to Seattle Kraken games, she said. Transit fare is included in the game ticket, because of subsidies from the team. Many riders begin their trips at Northgate or Tukwila light-rail hubs, then transfer at Westlake Station and take the approximately two-minute monorail ride.

“While everything is changing around us — there are a lot of buildings that are coming up and buildings coming down — it’s been really significant to me at least, to see the system endure and to really be revitalized, as Climate Pledge Arena comes online,” Ching said.

The Westlake entrance was renovated last year so there’s more room to stand, and therefore quicker loading through all train doors. Colored ceiling lights and a video screen were added, along with Art Deco fare gates shaped like the nose of a train.

Seattle Center Station still resembles its 1962 shape, and officials are discussing which renovations are most urgent to improve access and capacity. The old south-entrance ramp is too steep, and the platform railings need reworking to increase space for queuing passengers, said Tom Albro, co-owner of Seattle Monorail Services. A full menu of improvements may require $15 million, he said.

State lawmakers provided an initial $5 million toward station upgrades in the new $17 billion Move Ahead Washington package, and the monorail receives periodic train-maintenance grants by the Federal Transit Administration. That follows $7 million private funds spent last year on renovations, mainly by the arena’s owners.

The new money reflects a more stable future after decades of wear-and-tear, along with some doubts.

A crash in 1971 injured 26 people, and was followed by two lesser mishaps in a decade. Eventually, the rectangular Westlake station was considered an eyesore in struggling downtown. It was replaced by a smaller station inside a new retail mall in 1988.

Some Seattleites continued to dream of rising above traffic on a crosstown monorail, while tourists and conventioneers helped the line average 2 million annual trips. In 2000, the Experience Music Project, by architect Frank Gehry, was designed around the monorail, lending its gray beams sculptural quality.

Voters in 2002 passed a citizen initiative raising the car-tab tax, to construct 14 miles of new track and stations connecting Seattle Center to Ballard and West Seattle. But the independent Seattle Popular Monorail Authority unraveled three years later, at a taxpayer cost of $124 million.

On the old line, passengers were forced to evacuate a burning train May 31, 2004, followed by a crash in late 2005 where tracks converge at the shrunken Westlake Station. City Council members briefly talked about demolishing the columns, in favor of a Belltown-Seattle Center streetcar. Detractors compared Seattle to an episode of The Simpsons in which a traveling salesman pitched a rickety monorail to the fictional town of Springfield.

Rather than surrender, Seattle Center and train mechanics rebuilt the doors, seats and wheel components in the ’00s, followed by new floors and electronic control panels last year. The monorail belatedly joined the regional ORCA fare card system in 2019, expanding its role from tourist attraction to a full-fledged transit line for events and commutes.

“What we’ve got is a regional transit network, and the monorail is the last mile that connects everything in Seattle Center to that network,” Albro said.

Ballard and West Seattle make do with a RapidRide bus route as their consolation prize for losing the Green Line, while Sound Transit has yet to design light-rail projects to those neighborhoods, where the agency probably needs higher taxes to build in the 2030s. The public mood within Seattle neighborhoods has shifted strongly toward tunnels rather than bulky elevated tracks.

Meanwhile, the 1962 monorail has a job to do as more people return to travel. Ching hopes to modernize Seattle Center Station in the next couple years, by the time new guests arrive from light-rail hubs in Redmond, Bellevue, Lynnwood and Federal Way.

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