STEPHEN BROWN OPENED the first of six brainstorming sessions last week with the proclamation that the new Seattle monorail will be the first public-transit system in the country to be fiscally self-sufficient. The invited brainstormers, he said, would help achieve this goal. Brown is the lead entrepreneur for the Seattle Monorail Project, and his job entails coming up with novel ways for the system to make money. The brainstorming sessions, which were only opened to the public after media criticism, are the most visible component of Brown's idea gathering, which also involves visits to senior centers, conducting neighborhood meetings, visits to other transit systems, and consultations with people within the industry. The entrepreneurial ideas that stem from the meetings are one of the key parts of the monorail's plan to be self-sustaining and to break even by 2020.
The brainstorming participants, each of whom are paid $150 for their time, aren't transit experts. They are people recommended to Brown by his friends in the business world and his colleagues at the monorail project. "It's not just business peoplewe have teachers, psychologists, and artists," Brown says. The participants work with facilitators from IDEO, a Palo Alto, Calif., design firm that is paid from $8,000 to $10,000 by the monorail to come up with topics that run the gamut. Ideas at the first meeting ranged from the ludicrous (bellhops, pet-only cars, sun roofs, honor-system fares, a soundtrack for the ride mixed by local DJsto name a few that would most likely cost money rather than generate it) to the obvious (well-marked signs, readily accessible schedules, prepaid fare systems, and express trains). "It's not about the quality of ideas they come up with," Brown says. "It's about the quantity."
BROWN ACKNOWLEDGES this kind of creative thinking is unproven in the concrete world of mass-transit engineering. "I don't know of any transit system that uses this approach," he says. And, in fact, there's no guarantee that any of the ideas will survive to have a bearing on the monorail project. But Brown is confident that his idea gathering will yield results. Once the ideas are simmered down into "good ones," Brown says they will be turned into business plans and forwarded to the board of the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority. "All these things are board decisions. I'm just bringing ideas to the table," says Brown, who is paid $75,000 annually to work 30 hours a week.
The business plans that pass muster with the board still face the hurdle of how, and if, they will be incorporated into the final monorail plan that is handed off to the winner of the contract to design, build, operate, and maintain (DBOM) the monorail. "The monorail hasn't made any determinations about the DBOM contractor running these plans," Brown says. But it is almost certain, he says, that a group besides the monorail project will be running the businesses he hopes emerge from the brainstorming.
DBOM CONTRACTING is exactly what it sounds likehaving the winning bidder shoulder the burden of all phases of the project, from construction to running the actual trains. There are two consortiums competing for the monorail's DBOM contract: the Cascadia Monorail Co., led by Hitachi and Hoffman Construction, which is building the new downtown library; and Team Monorail, led by Bombardier and a joint venture of four construction companies led by Granite Construction, including Kiewit, which worked on Safeco Field, and Skanska, which remodeled the Opera House. There are numerous subcontractors on each team.
Monorail project managers say that DBOM will enable construction to happen on a fixed schedule at a fixed price (the design and build portions). But the DBOM contract also guarantees that the winning bidder will receive a certain amount of annual revenue from the monorail (the operate and maintain portions). As private companies, the DBOM teams have an interest in one thing: the bottom line. If they didn't think they would be able to reap profit from the monorail project, they wouldn't be interested in bidding.
The Seattle monorail is banking on fares from a projected 69,000 daily riders to help it break even. But the projections themselves count on predictions that people will move into "urban villages" that will spring up around monorail stations. The monorail project staff knows this; the plan as presented to the voters last year includes an operating subsidy of $25 million, to be spread over nine years, at which point the project is to break even. But if the monorail fails to break even, it is still on the hook to pay the winning DBOM team for the contractually guaranteed money. Monorail spokesperson Paul Bergman says that Brown's entrepreneurial endeavors will augment revenue from fares and help the monorail break even. But Brown's brainstormers aren't policy experts, MBAs, or venture capitalists. They're just opinionated citizens who happen to have an interest in transit. The more than $80,000 in the current budget to cover Brown's position, to pay the consultant, and to pay the brainstormers is either going to be money well spent or money thrown away, and at this point, no one really knows which.