Periodically, the issue is raised of the merits of monorail transit in the Salt Lake Valley. Unfortunately, inaccurate statements are printed and touted as truth; elements of fact are distorted, twisted or slanted - often by those with little transportation expertise or factual knowl-edge.
For interested readers, it is important to understand the role of rail transportation, in particular monorail technology, in context with travel needs of Salt Lake area commuters. A light-rail transit system is being built in the Salt Lake Valley, and comparisons with monorail technology will relate to that system.Only 10 urban transit-type monorail systems (six of which are in Japan) currently operate worldwide. Major manufacturers of monorail systems have visited Utah, analyzed the market and recommended not using monorail technology. Their market analysis concurs with the views of local transportation planning professionals that monorail technology would not function as well as light rail in this area, and monorail costs would be significantly higher and provide no additional benefits to area taxpayers and citizens. The following points describe the comparative points and reasoning behind this issue.
1. Cost is always an important question when comparing public investment choices.
Elevated monorail systems cost three to four times as much per mile to build as ground level light-rail systems. According to Thomas J. Stone, formerly with Bombardier Corp., the world's foremost builder of monorail systems, "An urban, straddle-type monorail system that would meet all current performance and safety standards and codes for urban transit would cost at least $60 million per mile to implement. This is based upon recent, firm, fixed price bids, backed by performance bonds, for (abandoned) projects in several cities worldwide, including Houston and Honolulu, and not based upon `guesstimates' made by monorail advocates."
These costs were similar to those estimated by manufacturers for a hypothetical monorail system in the Salt Lake area. The most recent credible project bids in Seattle for an extension of the 36-year-old monorail system show costs to be a minimum of three times ($70 million to $75 million per mile) the cost per mile of the TRAX system being constructed in Salt Lake Valley, which is approximately $21 million/ mile. Street level light-rail systems in cities such as San Diego, Portland, San Jose, Denver, St. Louis, etc., have averaged $20 million to $35 million per mile. Compared with light rail, there are no savings in relative operating or maintenance costs for the overhead guideway and elevated stations of monorail. Cost estimates for monorail typically do not include the cost of vertical transportation of stations, park and ride facilities and roadway access to stations. When the same elements are included, monorail is much more expensive than street level systems.
2. Objective analysis and professional judgment drive technology decisions in the public arena. Some have accused transportation consultants of having a vested interest in light-rail technology. Numerous independent transportation experts have consistently concluded that monorail technology is not appropriate for the Salt Lake Valley. Various rail technology studies conducted in cities throughout the country have concluded that monorail does not offer significant speed, capacity or convenience advantages over light-rail technology.
Parsons DeLeuw, considered an expert U.S. engineering firm for monorail technology planning and design, developed detailed monorail proposals for the rejected projects in Houston and Honolulu. In fact, DeLeuw admitted that monorail would be in that firm's financial interest because of the extensive engineering required for an elevated transit system. Admitting that, it supports the decisions of the Wasatch Front Regional Council that selected and supported light-rail transit as the preferred technology for the Salt Lake Valley.
In 1992 an independent study was funded by the Utah State Legislature and conducted by Parsons DeLeuw to evaluate transportation technologies for the area. The study confirmed that light rail was more suitable than monorail in the Salt Lake Valley. An important factor on reaching this conclusion is the relatively close station spacing that minimizes walking distance to a station. With stations less than one mile apart, there is not enough length between stations to take advantage of higher speeds for a significant portion of the route. There is, therefore, not enough time savings to justify the investment in monorail.
3. We do not have the financial luxury of using experimental or unproven technologies.
Our decisions must reflect our abilities to support them. No long-distance urban monorail transit system operates in the United States at present. In contrast, more than 20 light-rail systems are operating in the United States, and many more are in various stages of planning and design.
Seattle has a 1.1-mile monorail line that was built in 1962 for the World's Fair. Currently, Seattle is investigating the seemingly unlikely possibility of expanding the system to 40 miles at the manufacturers' estimated cost of nearly $3 billion.
4. Safety is the highest priority for our transit system. But safety is not an issue with only one dimension. Any elevated system would experience fewer vehicle accidents than a street-level system; however, one major drawback of elevated monorail systems is the difficulty of responding to incidents or emergencies on the line. It is difficult outside of the station areas on a system 20-plus feet in the air to respond to emergency situations.
5. Lastly, the decision to not select monorail was thoroughly considered on numerous occasions. In the late 1980s, the Wasatch Front Regional Council, consisting of mayors and commissioners from Salt Lake and surrounding areas, after intensive study, selected light-rail technology to help address Salt Lake Valley's transportation needs.
In the early 1990s, the Utah Transit Authority Board requested another intensive review from independent transit experts from around the world. Numerous presentations were made on all available mass transit alternatives, proven or unproven, from monorail, to light rail, to an all-bus system, a low-capacity bus system, commuter rail and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, to list a few. After this six-month study, the board reaffirmed support of light rail for the north-south corridor.
The recommendations of transportation experts throughout the world and local community leaders point to the same conclusion: Monorail is not, at this time, the appropriate solution to traffic congestion and transportation needs in the Salt Lake Valley.
Of course, light-rail transit is not the entire transportation solution either. The TRAX system, along with buses, carpooling lanes, vanpooling and improved road networks, is a proven solution that will help our region offer world-class transportation solutions in the years to come.