Seattle strikes a blow against the car

A poet and a taxi driver have persuaded voters to back a $1bn monorail system. They talked to David Usborne
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The Independent Online
A Man from the phone company is in to install a couple of lines. A need-to-get list is pinned to a door with items like "small car", "fridge" and "duct tape". Somewhere, beneath all the mess of papers and cardboard boxes, there are signs to stick up in the window.

It is hard to fathom that the new occupants of this cramped office just north of central Seattle - Grant Cogswell, a poet (who right now is removing his socks and putting them in his back pockets to dry), and Dick Falkenbury, a taxi driver - are the hottest political story this side of the Rockies.

There are clues, however, like the letter that has come from something called The Gleitsman Foundation in Los Angeles. A cheque for $500 (pounds 310) falls out and a fancy certificate with a quote from Robert Kennedy, beginning: "Few will have greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events." Members of the board of judges include Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ted Danson.

This is a pair of ordinary Joes, scruffy and idealistic for sure, who pulled off a coup in elections here last month that sent jaws dropping all across the Pacific North-West. They persuaded a majority of Seattleites to back a ballot initiative that aims to force the city to build a whole new mass-transit system. Specifically, an elevated monorail, 40 miles long, with 28 stations and driverless trains on rubber wheels.

And they did it with no political experience, less money and in spite of being mocked by the city's political establishment and ignored by its press. "They thought we were a couple of crazy wingnuts," laughs Mr Cogswell, 30. "And they hated us because we weren't part of the club. But now they can't be seen to hate us publicly, because of the support we got."

To collect the 18,000 signatures the initiative needed to qualify for consideration by voters, the pair did not hire professional consultants for the normal $3 a signature. Instead, they made seven plywood signs with maps of their proposed system and placed them at important junctions around the city. Attached to each was a pencil and paper for signatures.

Not only did they gather all the signatures and get the initiative approved by the voters - which means it automatically becomes law - but they included in it a provision about which they, and many others in Seattle, are still laughing. It says plainly that unless members of the city council take the thing seriously and get the monorail project moving within 12 months, then their salaries will be withheld.

"It had been a long night," quips Mr Falkenbury, 45, when asked about the "or else" clause. "And I think perhaps I was a bit liquored up." Then he answers more soberly: "It was meant to send a message that we were really serious about this. That we wanted them to pay attention."

The provision probably also helped make the initiative popular, because of the kick-in-the-pants message it sent to the political elite. This may be a city of coffee fanatics and computer nerds (Microsoft being just outside town), and pedestrians who only cross the road when the "walk" light is on, but it is also somewhere that warms to rebellion. Grunge and the late Kurt Cobain came from here, after all.

And with a political scene that is almost exclusively Democratic, and a tradition of progressive liberalism that goes back to its early Scandinavian settlers, Seattle may also be just about the only city in the US where the notion of giving up the almighty car in favour of a something as quiet, commonsensical and relatively non-polluting as a monorail could possibly fly.

"There is still a communitarian tilt to Seattle," says Mr Cogswell. "And, because it is surrounded by water, Seattle has been saved from the post- war destruction that happened in other cities in favour of cars."

On top of that, almost everyone in the city has simply had enough of clogged roads. "Ten years ago, it was nothing like this. I could practically walk down the freeway naked," says Mr Falkenbury, a cab driver of 20 years.

Scepticism still reigned, even in the aftermath of the 4 November election. "Whimsy, romance and deep frustration with traffic snarls are obviously alive and well in Seattle," hissed the Seattle Times in an editorial, going on to dismiss the monorail proposal as "thin soup to begin with".

But today the city is having to take notice. After originally fighting the initiative, the city's new mayor, Paul Schell, who takes office on 1 January, is promising to act. "With that big a vote, it deserves a serious hearing," he said.

A public development authority responsible for the monorail will be formed by the middle of February. Among its members will be Mr Falkenbury and representatives of the city council, the mayor and the governor of Washington state. In their office, meanwhile, the two campaigners are already drowning in literature from engineering consortia anxious to get a piece of the action.

The city, as it happens, already has a monorail. Just one mile in length, it was built for the 1962 World's Fair and links a city centre shopping mall with the Seattle Space Needle. Messrs Cogswell and Falkenbury are proposing extending the line into a huge "X" that would reach the four corners of the hourglass-shaped city. The projected cost would be about $1bn, which, according to the pair, could probably be raised entirely through private investment.

Thus, what is essentially a toy now - though last week the Needle monorail was positively crammed with Christmas shoppers - would be transformed into North America's first fully-operational, metropolis-wide monorail system. At the moment monorails are confined to airports and Disney World.

With a forest of political and financial obstacles ahead, do the poet and the taxi driver really believe the monorail will happen? You bet. Give it seven years, says Mr Cogswell.