PLANNERS OF Seattle's new monorail, having mostly heard the praise and protests of the public during the first year of route mapping and design, are now getting an earful from City Hall. The $1.7 billion Seattle Monorail Project, facing as much as a 30 percent shortfall in license-tag funding, might be operating under an "unreasonably accelerated schedule," say city design-review officials, who caution that Seattle's planned ride in the sky "should not be squandered through shortsighted measures to cut costs." Mayor Greg Nickels is also concerned that the public monorail, which will be privately operated under a comprehensive design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) contract awarded to the top bidder later this year, won't be efficiently integrated into the regional transit system. He wants monorail officials to defer a final decision on half the contract—operation and maintenance—until alternatives have been fully explored and the paying public has more chance to comment.
A public hearing on the final staff recommendation for Green Line alignment and station locations will be held Wednesday, Feb. 11, 4:30 p.m., at the Seattle Monorail Project headquarters in the Securities Building at 1913 Fourth Ave.
That same day, outside monorail headquarters at 6 p.m., a rally will be held by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587 and Washington State Jobs With Justice. Mayor Greg Nickels also supports public operation and maintenance of the 14-mile Ballard– to–West Seattle line, instead of the plan to have the monorail operated by the same contractor that designs and builds it.
The groups say the privatizing process costs more and leaves fewer tax dollars in the community. They also oppose some candidate companies for their corporate practices.
The mayor's review of monorail plans, and a lengthy design and alignment analysis by the city's 12-member Monorail Review Board, were both quietly issued two weeks ago. Nickels says the evolving monorail plan shows "significant progress," but he points out that the city retains oversight responsibility and reminded cash-strapped monorail officials that they have agreed to pay all costs of relocating city utilities. (Trying to save on some of those costs has, for one, caused the monorail to situate its trains within six feet of downtown buildings, irking landowners who want City Hall to muscle in.) To avoid any confusion and limit the city's risks, Nickels wants the Seattle Monorail Project to identify itself in its legal contracts as an "independent governmental agency" and to declare that "SMP is neither an arm nor an instrument of the City of Seattle."
Review panel members are especially critical of the monorail's cost-cutting plan to use more two-way guideways, worrying that the single-beam plan will produce bulky, visually polluting overhead switch platforms required to allow trains to pass and reverse direction. They also say a possible skybridge from Fifth Avenue to Westlake Center is unacceptable, in part because "justifying the use of public money to funnel passengers through a private building is unreasonable." And echoing a complaint made earlier by the public, the panel says a Safeco Field station is unnecessary because it duplicates a nearby stop at Seahawks Stadium.
The special review panel, comprised partly of city design and planning commissioners, says "critical decisions are being made very quickly" by SMP, and it has requested "much more" information to make a complete and timely review. "This system will so dominate the streets along which it passes as to define them as 'monorail streets' for the lifetime of the project," the panel says in its report. "It is incumbent upon us all to ensure that being a 'monorail street' is as positive a moniker as possible, but it will take considerable additional analysis and design to get there. There will be no hiding what is essentially a 14-mile-long bridge; a monumental structure that can and should be an elegant and dynamic element in our city. ... "
The review panel's preliminary recommendations, made to the mayor and City Council, are only advisory. But the city can demand certain conditions be met before permits are issued. Nickels, for example, made a point to tell monorail officials that their designs have to be approved by the city, and he says he might seek indemnities and performance guarantees.
Monorail officials say they've had productive meetings with the city and welcome an "over-the-shoulder review" by City Hall. "I think the city has been great to work with," says the monorail's construction director, Tom Horkan, "and I think we will work even more closely with them as we go forward." Monorail spokesperson Lee Keller also says the agency has proposed some changes based on city feedback.
Despite Nickels' plea for public operation of the trains—he wants Metro to run them, just as it will run Sound Transit's bus/rail system—the monorail so far is sticking with its original, winner-takes-all DBOM plan. A new report issued last week by the monorail concludes that having a single consortium build and run the monorail "offers significant advantages to the SMP as a new agency deploying a system using complex technology."
But monorail planners have agreed to some alignment changes recommended by the city as well as the public. SMP says it will move the planned Dravus Street station in Interbay out of the QFC store parking lot—where the station's large footprint would have disrupted traffic and likely required closing the newly remodeled grocery store. The stop now is planned for a site about a block south, occupied by several older homes and small businesses. Significantly, the alignment in the Delridge neighborhood also has been moved away from the Longfellow Creek green space, instead running farther west along the West Seattle Bridge, around the Nucor steel plant, and winding up Avalon Way (adding $5 million to the cost).
The SMP is so far sticking with its plans for a Safeco Field station less than two blocks from the Seahawks/Pioneer Square/International District station, albeit smaller than originally suggested. It also still plans to build its big operations and maintenance yard in Interbay rather than in industrialized SoDo, as the city review board and some public observers have recommended. SMP is already in the process of buying the Interbay site, forcing relocation of the campus of Northwest Center for the developmentally disabled (see "Charitable Confiscation," Nov. 12, 2003).
Other city Monorail Review Board recommendations and observations:
• The Ballard monorail bridge, crossing Salmon Bay to Interbay, looks "like a freeway overpass." (Monorail officials think it's a sleek design.)
• "One of the most dramatic and dynamic [urban spaces] in the city," surrounding the historical, triangular Times Square Building in the Olive Way/Stewart Street corridor, "will be destroyed" by the visual intrusion of the monorail. (Monorail headquarters is located in a building nearby.)
• Rather than tear down the landmark Denny's restaurant for a new station at 15th Avenue Northwest and Northwest Market Street in Ballard, raze the new Walgreens across the street, a "suburban-style, auto-oriented" drug store. (SMP is still eying the Denny's site.)
• Build the Fifth Avenue and Bell Street station on a nearby empty parking lot rather than on an occupied business site across the street. (Both sites are owned by Clise Properties, whose president, Richard Stevenson, is a monorail board member. (See "Elevated Interest," Nov. 19, 2003.)
Contractor bids will be opened in May and a winning team will be selected over the summer, monorail spokesperson Paul Bergman says. Final design and construction will begin by the end of the year. The opening of the first section of the Green Line is slated for Dec. 15, 2007. A public hearing on the final recommendation for alignment and station locations will be held next Wednesday, Feb. 11, at 4:30 p.m. at SMP, 1913 Fourth Avenue.