[See also: “The Looming Crisis in Mass Transit” from our Jul/Aug 2012 issue.]
Monorail: A One-Track Controversy
May 9, 1964—A wealthy Swedish industrialist named Axel Wenner-Gren dreamed of revolutionizing public transportation with dozens of Alweg—a contraction of his name—monorail systems in cities all over the world. As it turned out, Wenner-Gren had to settle for considerably less. His first and only commercial sale was to Disneyland, U.S.A, but he died before this line—five-eighths’ scale and recently lengthened to 2.5 miles—was completed.
Since its founder’s death, Alweg—spurred by a slight, blond, fiftyish promoter named Sixton Holmquist—has stepped up its marketing efforts. Its major accomplishment thus far has been the highly successful Seattle line.
The Seattle monorail turned out to be successful beyond even the dreams of its promoters. The entire cost of building the line—$4.2 million—was recouped in six months. From then until June 3, 1963, when Alweg gave the monorail to the Civic Center Corp. of Seattle, the profits (Alweg won’t say how much) piled in.
The enthusiasm of Seattle toward its monorail is infectious. Typical is Paul Seibert, head of a downtown business association, who says. “We realize this is the Model T of monorail, but even so, it is a heck of a lot better than most of us anticipated. It’s our Eiffel Tower. People actually come all the way to Seattle just to ride the monorail.”
Such comments are heady stuff for the residents of Los Angeles, mired in traffic jams and money problems. They have been offered an alternate plan—but the cost is staggering. The M.T.A., which is charged with planning rapid transit for all of Los Angeles County, has proposed a “backbone” system that includes 19 miles of expensive subway (through heavily congested downtown areas), 38 miles of elevated track and seven miles of surface lines-all for conventional trains operating on steel rails. The total cost of the package is $649 million, requiring a yearly debt cost of $33 million—about $11 million more than could be expected to come in through the fare box.
Alweg, fresh from its Seattle triumph, proposed to build a 43-mile, $187.5 million monorail that would parallel three fourths of the M.T.A.’s proposed backbone route and would be financed by selling M.T.A. revenue bonds to private investors. The proposal, which was contingent upon obtaining the necessary rights-of-way, sounded highly attractive to Los Angeles taxpayers, who would theoretically get their new transit line without ponying up a cent of tax money.
But Ernest Gerlach, chief engineer of the M.T.A., believes without equivocation that monorails cannot do the job in Los Angeles.
“The monorail people,” he says, “are a solution looking around for a problem. The proper problem doesn’t show up very often. I think it probably did in Seattle and at Disneyland. But in planning a system for Los Angeles County, we have to build structures the citizens will accept. There are six different towns on our backbone route, and several of them simply said a flat ‘No’ to any overhead transit system on main streets of their town.”
Alweg’s man in Los Angeles, a lanky, articulate, no-nonsense public-relations man named William Ross—who, incidentally, is handling publicity for the Goldwater primary campaign in California—is bitter about the kiss-off given his company by the M.T.A.
“Sometimes I wonder,” he says, “if they really want to build a system. The basic question in Los Angeles was always: Do we go underground at huge expense to the taxpayers or do we go overhead with monorail with no taxes and the fare box carrying the freight? It was our hope that once our plan was considered acceptable we could go with the M.T.A. into each of the communities along the transit route and sell them on the merits of monorail. I think we could have pulled it off, but we never got the chance.”