Monoreality

The monorail project's board signs off on the alignment this month. But is this the train we voted for?

Concerns over how the new Seattle monorail is to be built are giving ground to a nagging new question: Will it be built? Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) officials, who overestimated their revenue projections by a third, still think they have enough money to make a revised plan work through cutbacks and closing a license-plate-tax loophole that could leave scofflaws facing felony perjury charges. The project is moving ahead in an impressive, almost evangelical manner, with the goal of putting the first Seattle cars in the air by the end of 2007. But it will not be the project approved by a slim margin of voters in 2002. Instead, there will be fewer rail miles, longer travel times, more difficult access, and unforeseen engineering challenges, such as a station 10 stories tall and an 84-step commuter stairway up a hillside. The devil in such details is likely to surprise even supporters.

The project will bring an estimated 2,100 construction-related jobs and more than $600 million in new income, claims the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority. But it also could cost the relocation and/or loss of more than 1,000 jobs, 80 businesses, and more than three dozen households. Up to 1,400 parking spaces will be lost, and 137 residential and business properties would be partly or wholly confiscated, while more than 300 other property owners will, in the longer term, endure the trains' noise and vibrations.

NONE OF THIS, of course, was imparted to voters in 2002, because the monorail was mostly a concept. No one back then seemed to imagine that a 5-acre campus for the developmentally disabled would be uprooted, affecting hundreds of clients. The charity, Northwest Center, is already preparing to give way for a massive monorail operations center at Interbay, even though an arguably more suitable industrial site is available in the SoDo neighborhood. Similarly, did anyone know in 2002 that 500 parking spaces would disappear downtown, that trains might pass within five feet of buildings and close enough to residences to offer passengers a sneak peek into private parlors and boudoirs every five minutes? Who knew that—now seeing the mock-ups—bulky guideways and sprawling stations would so darken horizons, dwarf neighborhoods, and, like the station planned outside Seattle Center, loom over the intersection like a floating freeway?

Who figured that in some areas—Delridge, for example, where a projected 70 percent of riders would arrive at the monorail by bus—the plan succeeds only if enough of them can be persuaded to indeed disembark and wait for the monorail, rather than stay on a bus that might beat the train downtown?

MEET THE JETSONS

Those developments and the cash-light monorail project's admission that it doesn't yet know how much it will cost are causing a quiet backlash. It includes a falling-out with original supporters and top civic officials, including former Mayor Norm Rice, and the launch of a community drive for a new vote to approve or reject the evolving plan. Even Dick Falkenbury, the Seattle cab driver who is considered the father of the monorail proposal, says he'd like to see the monorail's private contractors, now formulating their bids to design, build, operate, and maintain the system, toss out the project's planning and be turned loose to come up with their own "revolutionary" ideas. There is, as well, a growing chorus at City Hall dissatisfied with the project's breakneck schedule and financial cutbacks, with some City Council members threatening to simply abort the 14-mile, $1.75 billion project.

Make that the 13.7-mile (they remeasured), $1.6 billion project (they recounted). After its miscalculated revenue from an annual tax on Seattleites' car license plates fell as much as $300 million short—a critical situation the monorail's staff kept secret from its executive board for almost four months—the monorail authority has removed at least 4 miles of guideways from its planned Green Line route from Crown Hill, north of Ballard, to Morgan Junction in West Seattle. Rather than travel each way on separate rails, trains now will switch back and forth from two rails to one and back to two. This alternate rail plan is being sold as more architecturally and construction friendly, but it's a cutback that extends trip time while covering as much as $140 million of the shortfall. Even with a slimmer, $1.6 billion kitty, the monorail project is still shy at least $150 million. Almost half could be made up, says the monorail, if the Legislature passes new laws expanding license-fee collections and allowing the monorail to crack down on scofflaws who evade the tax by using non-Seattle addresses—though passage of such legislation is uncertain this session. The monorail's added car-license tax is currently 0.85 percent and rises to 1.4 percent this summer, continuing until 2020, or 2030—or is it 2040? No one's certain. The owner of a $20,000 car, for example, will contribute an extra $280 a year until the monorail bill is paid.

THE SYSTEM COULD soon get a tax-collection boost through a pending administrative-law change by the state Department of Licensing, which would require car owners to note their primary residences on title forms—or else. The guess is that more than 10,000 evade the tax, perhaps by using a relative's address or a postal box in the suburbs. According to a copy of the DOL's proposed rule, a registrant would have to provide the "true, fixed, and permanent home and place of habitation in Washington. The department will presume that a registered owner's primary residence is the same as the address used in driver's license records and voter registration records." The information must be certified "under penalty of perjury that the information provided is true and correct." Effectively, that extends a penalty that already prevails for falsifying other licensing documents. No one's saying—yet—that the monorail will send out the Address Police. But in the midst of the monorail funding controversy, it seems prison sentences have suddenly been injected into the debate. "Who's advising SMP on legal affairs?" asks monorail critic Geof Logan. "Tony Soprano?"

The SMP already saved $24 million when some inflationary costs came in lower than projected, and it hopes to make up the remaining millions through other cutbacks—installing elevators in lieu of more costly (and convenient) escalators, for example—and using creative lease- financing and vendor-financing plans. Still, as SMP Executive Director Joel Horn recently told City Council members during an oversight hearing, "We won't know [the construction cost] until we get our bids back." That should be sometime this summer, after the nine-member Seattle Popular Monorail Authority executive board approves the final alignment on March 29. A final environmental-impact statement is being issued next week.

Construction, by one of the two consortiums bidding on the project, is to start by next year, and a short line, perhaps from Interbay to Westlake Center downtown, would open in December 2007. The full line would be running within two more years. Besides overseeing the construction and operation of the Green Line by private contractors, the SMP is also required to begin laying out the next phase of the monorail, envisioned ultimately as a 58-mile, five-line system traversing the city, Jetsons-like, with automated, driverless trains.

CONSTRUCTION CONFLUENCE

But that future is for your kids. The Green Line, bearing a load of both dreams and nightmares, is for you, and planningwise, it has arrived. Though the City Council held monorail work sessions and hearings last year, it is only now beginning to aggressively review proposals and hold more hearings, cramming in at least 12 public sessions in four months, beginning with three design review hearings in Ballard, downtown, and West Seattle this week. There's a sense of urgency at City Council meetings, where the monorail's fate lies. City staffers and monorail officials flash through their PowerPoint slides while council members try to grasp the concepts and define the meaning of regenerative braking (reversing power to stop), the Delridge Options (three different station sites around the Nucor steel plant), and such bureaucratese as "no significant unavoidable impacts anticipated." (Who the hell knows?) Besides trying to run a major city, the council and Mayor Greg Nickels have a few other new items on their agendas, as well—something about construction of a light-rail line and replacement of an elevated waterfront freeway, we hear.

Some fear that the boorish, repetitive, public-review syndrome called the Seattle Way is sneaking up. "For heaven's sake, build it," says former Gov. Dan Evans, echoing thousands of monorail fans. Yet can there be too much oversight for a project—the largest of its kind in history here—that will forever transform Seattle? "Raising concerns and asking that they be addressed is not obstructionist," says City Council member Richard Conlin, a tiger on the issue of monorail accountability. The line would be the first long-distance commuter monorail in the U.S., a project promising a blazing future of sleek, nonpolluting elevated rapid travel—but one that begins with a destruction and construction mess and four years of traffic nightmares that will make today's Seattle gridlock seem like a Sunday drive. Blocked streets, lost parking spaces, and travel diversions will be added to the current mix of headaches. Fifth Avenue will get a twofer: the building of a new monorail line, preceded by the tearing down of an old one. Sound Transit, meanwhile, will be competing to see who can tear up the most streets as its builds its own 14-mile light-rail system through the city. It's possible the Alaskan Way Viaduct will be repaired or replaced within a few years, assuming it stands that long. Then there are the dozens of transit buses that will return to surface streets next year as the downtown bus tunnel is closed for conversion to light rail.

Joel Horn, executive director of the Seattle Monorail Project: almost spiritual about this "grand tale."

(Robin Laananen)

To monorail supporters, such prospects are the storm before the calm, the road rage we're just going to have to endure en route to creating a modern mass transit system. Just you wait: That high-flying commuter and tourist train, soaring over traffic jams, zipping from home to work, easing congestion and air pollution, is going to look great in three or four years—if we don't all kill each other in the meantime.

WATCHDOGS LINE UP

There are other human costs, particularly to the hundreds of businesses and homeowners in or near the trains' planned pathway. Those directly affected face the forced loss of their property under the government's right of eminent domain. They are being offered what the monorail says are fair market prices, and landowners and tenants will all get relocation fees. Legal negotiations are under way for many of the properties, and some disputes might be headed to court. Property owners have geared up for a fight, having months ago been solicited by attorneys offering to represent them in negotiations to obtain financial agreements based on the highest and best use of their land. Some want to be compensated for recent improvements, and others plan to seek redress for possible noise and vibration of close-up trains. Some downtown property owners say they might seek recompense for tenants who have already given notice of their intention to move out before the line is built.

Dick Falkenbury, the cabbie who helped give birth to the monorail project.

(Adam L. Weintraub)

The creeping costs—human, engineering, and financial—are souring many. "I was the poster boy at press conferences, speaking on behalf of the monorail," says William Justin, whose Samis Land Co. owns 12 properties along the planned Second Avenue route and who gave money to the monorail election campaign. "But now I'm starting to regret that support." He thinks the latest alignment plan could impede downtown development. "We've got to look back and see what the voters wanted," he says, "and deliver it." A new group of civic and business leaders, called OnTrack, is also dogging the monorail, keeping close watch on its planning and financing. Its members include developers, activists, and civic leaders, such as former Mayor Rice and ex-Port of Seattle commissioner Henry Aronson. They note that the instructions given by the monorail to bidders don't require them to fully reflect all costs of the project, and they think the monorail might end up trying to shift some of its utility mitigation costs to city taxpayers.

Kevin Orme, a board member of Friends of the Monorail, counters that it's actually monorail supporters who are fed up—with what he calls the City Council's tactical delays and with misleading rhetoric from organizations such as OnTrack. "It's simply yet another way for monorail opponents to try to kill the project," he says. Yet Falkenbury, who first envisioned the new monorail system nine years ago and helped birth the Seattle Monorail Project, thinks planners are untracked. He hopes the winning contractor "sees that the monorail can actually work, make money, and even—dare I say it?—make a difference. I am hoping that the winning bidder throws out much of the SMP design work, which assumes that the monorail is a burden instead of a benefit, and that they come up with a simple system that works."

ENDLESS STAIRS

There are some pluses, however, to working with less revenue. If the monorail authority says it can still deliver essentially what voters asked for, then the public gets its bang for less buck. That also compels the monorail to hold down the body count by acquiring fewer properties. Horn and others prefer to characterize it simply as being sensitive to massive relocations, and they say the toll is small compared to the size of the project. One instance they cite is the plea by West Seattle businesses which claimed that the initial, straight-away route going up Fauntleroy Way Southwest, toward California Avenue Southwest, would displace three homes, 11 businesses, and 80 workers. Restudying the plan, the monorail has offered, instead, to take a seven-block jog down 35th Avenue Southwest and then up Southwest Alaska Street to California, causing fewer relocations (which Conlin calls nonetheless "problematic," since the new route requires several new hard turns and could include a station that displaces parkland).

Still, the 100-plus relocations might be a shock to some, particularly those who saw the new line more like the existing Seattle Center monorail, running straight and true along existing public rights of way, displacing cars, not homes and businesses. Probably the most underestimated impact was the 19 elevated stations that will have sizable footprints. Still on the drawing boards, some have been tentatively downsized from original designs, partly because of costs, while others have been upsized: The "preferred alternative" for Delridge skies to 10 stories (100 feet) next to Nucor Steel in order to send and receive passengers from the West Seattle Bridge. About $1 million of the station's cost is intended to mitigate conflicts with the steel yard and keep Nucor happy. (That's the same Fortune 500 company that recently threatened a cutback in jobs unless its City Light bill was discounted by $6 million.) Even at that, the mill site is isolated and, well, scary. "If I had children," says monorail board member Cindy Laws, "the last thing I would want is for my children to walk through there."

City Council member Richard Conlin: a tiger on monorail accountability.

(Robin Laananen)

ANOTHER STATION—it already has a land-use-change notice posted out front—would be situated on the site of the friendly little Chinese joint along Elliott Avenue West, Chen's Village, where the bar is a neighborhood hangout. At four stories and 17,000 square feet, the station will block condo views and consume the triangle it is to be built on. Accessing the station from Queen Anne will mean, for some, a good walk down and, later, up a stairway with 84 steps, notes Conlin. The monorail is not building any major park-and-ride sites, and City Hall is getting an earful on that from homeowners who foresee swarms of cars headed to their neighborhoods.

The monorail says: Be happy. "Most people are going to be coming by bus," Horn claims. "Think of it [a monorail station] more as a transfer station." (A transfer station where you'll likely be required to pay another $1 fare to hop aboard; fares and rider zones are years away from being established, and most doubt there will be a free-ride zone downtown like Metro Transit's today. Nine of the 19 monorail stations are sandwiched between Seattle Center and Safeco Field.)

As proof of the monorail's promise, Horn wields ridership studies showing that an average of 2,500 or more people an hour will eventually ride the high rails. "A lot of people won't need parking spaces anymore because they're going to take the monorail," the director says. Let's hope he's right, especially about downtown. Horn says about 190 parking spaces will be given over to the guideway's footing and up to 350 more (mostly in parking lots and garages) will be supplanted by monorail stations. Other assessments show more than 300 parking spots lost in SoDo and more than 250 in West Seattle.

ALL-POWERFUL CITY HALL

Nickels and City Council members are insisting on additional time to review plans for the monorail, which is an independent municipal corporation known as the "city transportation authority." Nonetheless, the monorail project is dependent on the city to approve or deny its plan. It must secure a number of permits and approvals from the city for use of public rights of way and property, such as Seattle Center, the West Seattle Bridge, and miles of city streets. Without those OKs, the monorail's a goner or faces possible major revisions and even a revote. The council could, for example, give thumbs-down to the currently favored and controversial route through, rather than around, Seattle Center and down Fifth Avenue, replacing the old monorail, instead of skirting the Center along Mercer Street to the north (or, more logically, some argue, avoiding the costly Center swing and stopping at its southern foot, then racing down Second Avenue). Whatever the monorail authority proposes, the city can undo.

A recent council resolution says the city wants substantial evidence the entire line can be financed and constructed, and the council has declared that any permits and use agreements are conditional until all costs are known. At least three of the nine council members—Conlin, Nick Licata, and Peter Steinbrueck, with newcomer Tom Rasmussen beginning to ask pesky questions—oppose the through-the- Center route. Steinbrueck also pointedly drew up a resolution noting that the Center's master use plan ordains that "vehicular access should not segment the site or undermine the primary pedestrian nature of the site."

On Elliott Avenue West, neighborhood hangout Chen's Village is a goner, to be displaced by a monorail station.

(Rick Anderson)

SOME COUNCIL members are frustrated at the monorail's apparent rush to build, although the monorail project says it's merely keeping up with the schedule. "If this project is now so fragile that taking the time to make good decisions endangers its ability to go forward," Conlin said in a recent position paper that took issue with the monorail's initiatives, "then the project is doomed to failure." Conlin says he's gotten considerable e-mail and letters from people who say they're monorail supporters but are upset by SMP's choices. One of the contractors bidding on the monorail told him, Conlin says, that insisting on a 2007 opening rather than letting contractors set the schedule will cost millions in unnecessary expenses. (Monorail officials say that delays will, among other things, most certainly inflate costs.)

The dispute animates Conlin. While Licata, for example, made it clear to Horn in a meeting that the city feels "we have the authority to essentially pull the plug if we feel the finances aren't there," Conlin, who accused the monorail of "papering over its problems," antagonistically challenged the monorail leader. Horn explained that SMP hadn't included in its initial bid proposal a sky bridge from Fifth Avenue to Westlake Center (it can be added later) because monorail officials felt it "didn't have the right" to build it without city permission. Conlin responded: "You don't have the right to build anything without our permission." Horn, who has a firm but mostly nonconfrontational style, nodded and moved on.

The dynamic in such exchanges, says a council aide who asked not to be named, "is that the council is sort of being set up to be blamed for cost overruns." If things are moving too fast and furious, and council members slip up in their oversight role, they could find themselves helping fund the monorail. "The bidders won't say so publicly, but they want the SMP to go slower, too," the aide adds. "It's hard to put together bids on a project in such flux."

CONLIN SAYS HE has no agenda to scuttle the monorail, but a new opposition group, monorailrecall.com, wants a new vote taken, at least. A few months old, it already claims 400 members and hopes to sign up enough people to foster an initiative asking for approval or disapproval of the modified plan. That could be the fourth vote on a project whose development and realization was approved in 1997, 2000, and 2002 (in the last case, establishing the SMP, by a margin of 877 out of 189,000 ballots cast). Recall backers contend the multimillion-dollar revenue shortfall is proof that the monorail has "significant financial problems," which should trigger a revote. (The establishing statute reads: "The City transportation [monorail] authority may be dissolved by a vote of the people residing within the boundaries of the authority if the authority is faced with significant financial problems.") They also say voters expected escalators and not elevators at stations, that a preferred alignment through Seattle Center was not approved by the ballot, that it wasn't clear the 1962 World's Fair monorail would be torn down, that ridership projections based on future housing growth along the Green Line are overblown, and that the public was not told in advance that some trains would run on one track.

That last one's a stickler at City Hall, too.

When Horn played down the notion that single beams were a cost-saving move, instead insisting that the change was made as much for its "urban design impact," Steinbrueck, an architect, piped up. "It's an oxymoron," he said. The single beam "seems to create its own urban design impact." Horn allowed that yes, the single beams will require the use of more visually polluting switches—some as long as 180 feet—straddling intersections. But on the upside, fewer visually polluting support columns would be required for a one-rail guideway. The public hasn't actually seen a depiction of the overhead switch "lids," Horn added. "We explained what they looked like."

So, Conlin asked again, it wasn't a budget decision?

"It came out of an urban design issue," Horn repeated. And it's "a double positive," because with more switches, other trains can more easily move around or reverse direction from a stranded train, he said. (Vancouver's SkyTrain stalls on average almost once a week.) Stranded passengers would have no chance to be moved to another train if the monorail stalls on a single beam, since there'd be no second guideway for a side-by-side rescue. But Horn says a stalled train could be pushed to the next station by another train.

CRUNCH TIME

Horn and other monorail officials are striving to display, as the monorail promised voters, "transparency and accountability," revealing the good with the bad—as opposed to the SMP's predecessor, the Elevated Transportation Company, which kept its memos secret under a phony attorney-client privilege and tried even to keep monorail cost figures from being listed in the ballot title. They regularly release documents and details to the public and media and provide updated info and include links to critical newspaper articles on their Web site. Horn's an energizing manager and enthusiastic leader who is almost spiritual about this "grand tale," as he calls it, the erection of a transit skyway through a city that's long desired to have one.

But it's crunch time, and the incoming fire is increasing. There's a sense that, at some point soon, someone will crack—start throwing things across the office and shout, "Where were all these assholes when we were drawing this up!" Or, judging by the wincing exchanged by monorail officials listening to recent City Council questions, maybe it's already happened. The SMP says it has taken innumerable surveys, hosted open houses, heard from thousands of citizens, and held a legion of community meetings and public hearings, in addition to hundreds of get-togethers with local, state, and federal officials. It has been working elbow to elbow with city departments. "We have so much pressure from this community to keep this [project] moving along," says monorail board member Paul Toliver.

OK, but around City Hall, advises a council staffer, "the thinking is speed kills."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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