Sound familiar? Yep, it does.
The major difference between Mayor Mike McGinn's light rail pitch and the since-scuttled monorail (aside from the technology) is that he hasn't yet said how he'll pay for it. (Actually, I'm not sure that's so different). Anyway, the likeliest funding source, according to city staffers, is a vehicle-license fee of as much as $100.
Otherwise, the two systems are much the same: It's the same corridor, it would be funded by a fee on vehicles (comparable to the motor-vehicle excise tax that would have funded the monorail), it would be a city-only project, instead of a regionally funded project like Sound Transit, and it would probably require long-term bonds because it would draw from a smaller tax base.
Most of those factors should be sufficient reason for pause among transit supporters. Not the line itself---Ballard and, particularly, West Seattle will need additional transit in the future. But the death of the monorail came about in large part due to the other three factors mentioned above.
• The fact that the monorail relied exclusively on a single tax had two major impacts: Because the tax came from a single source, people were acutely aware of it. Car taxes were suddenly several hundreds of dollars higher. And because the monorail agency overestimated the total value of cars in Seattle, the error cost the agency one-third of the revenues it had predicted. Had the monorail agency not relied so heavily on a single tax, the impact of the error could have been much less devastating.
• McGinn has proposed funding light rail through a fee on Seattle drivers, whereas Sound Transit is funded regionally and encompasses a three-county area---a significantly larger tax base. Seattle-only light rail would undoubtedly have a smaller tax base than Sound Transit's.*
•Like the monorail, because it would have a smaller tax base than a typical transit system, McGinn's light rail would probably have to rely on long-term bonds. The monorail's financing plan ended up relying on 40-year uninsured junk bonds, because the markets wouldn't finance the more highly rated, lower-interest-rate 30-year bonds typical of public projects.
• Additionally, a Seattle-only rail system paid for by license fees would face one potential disadvantage that monorail didn't face: It would bring in less money Unless the city decided to put a much larger package on the ballot (say, a $100 vehicle license fee, a sales-tax increase, and a property tax), revenues would be much lower than the monorail, which relied on an across-the-board 1.4 percent motor-vehicle excise tax.
Finally, because it's a flat, across-the-board fee, the license fee is regressive. (So was the monorail---like sales taxes, a flat percentage tax hurts poor people more than rich people. However, a sales tax is especially regressive because everybody has to buy things like clothes, and poor people spend a much greater percentage of their income on sales tax than the rich. In contrast, poor people tend to own cheaper cars than rich people. Under the monorail plan, people who owned compact beaters paid less than people who own $100,000 Hummers. Under McGinn's plan, those people would pay exactly the same amount.)
Footnote: As Ben Schiendelman at Seattle Transit Blog just pointed out to me by email, because Sound Transit requires projects in each of three "subareas" to be paid for by residents in that subarea, Seattle's light rail is funded largely by sales tax in Seattle; however, Sound Transit's north King County subarea also includes Shoreline and Lake Forest Park. Moreover, everyone pays sales tax; not everyone owns a car.