It's a Fight to the Finish

With actual bidding imminent, monorail boosters and critics regroup for yet another battle.

"They thought it was all over after the vote," John Arthur Wilson is saying, standing outside a Seattle Monorail Project meeting room last week. SMP's executive board is poised to give final approval to the new 13.7-mile sky track alignment. "They've realized that's untrue now."

Wilson, a public-affairs consultant with the Gallatin Group, was recently buttonholed to reorganize support for the $1.6 billion proposed monorail project. His backers include former members of Monorail Now, a pro-monorail group that disbanded after the 2002 vote. Its contributors back then in­cluded now–SMP Executive Director Joel Horn, who gave $2,000 to the cause, and Bombardier, the transportation giant that gave $5,000 and is now part of a consortium seeking to win the monorail construction bid. Wilson won't say who his clients are today. "They came to me in January," Wilson recalls, "and said, 'We'd better do something.'"

SMP's design work and environmental impact statement were under fire, property owners were headed to court seeking more money for their seized land, other lawsuits were threatened over the downtown alignment, a new opposition group was forming to seek a recall vote, and the true cost of the project had (and has) yet to be determined. Other than funding, none of those consequences might be fatal to the plan. Yet Wilson's monorail backers felt they were losing ground, he says, and under a reconstituted Monorail Now logo, he's got a Web site up and is trolling for boosters. So far, "Labor, business, environmental types, they're all behind [the new drive], a very organic group," says Wilson, a onetime Seattle Weekly news editor. A steering committee is forming, and Wilson has a database with a chorus of 10,000 potential supporters to sing the monorail's rallying tune: "Just build it!"

Does any of this sound familiar? Eighteen months after the monorail plan was narrowly approved at the polls, the vote seems almost to have not registered. The rhetoric and hard sell are back, along with new polls and a regrouping of supporters and opponents. With approval by a divided City Council up in the air, and construction bids due within two months, it's showtime. SMP has upped the intensity of its own publicly funded campaign, emphasizing the promise of fast commutes, great views, and environmental friendliness. With a $7.7 million budget for advertising, promotion, and public outreach in 2004, the monorail's mantra is now almost spiritual in heralding the results of its "guiding principles," "grassroots effort," and the "movement" that gave birth to Green Line planning. Spin is in. The March cover of SMP's news­paper, The Inside Track, consists only of numbers in large type, including: 35,000 (the number of people who have spoken with SMP staff members) and 1,750 (the number of questions fielded by the monorail answer man, Ask Lars). Among the inside stories: Why bookworms should ride the monorail.

As with most government agencies, criticism doesn't rate big type. But, "At SMP, especially, you're either with 'em or again' 'em," says a member of the Downtown Seattle Association, which wants changes in the monorail's design and alignment. DSA questions whether SMP has really closed the gap on its funding shortfall. Pat Stambor, co-chair of the new Monorail Recall group, says the agency's attitude and miscues have stirred her group to life. They "seem to cherry-pick the favorable comments and ignore the negative ones, making it seem like everyone loves what they are doing."

There's no hiding Stambor's feelings. "Our goal is to stop this monorail plan in its tracks," she says. Only a few months old and claiming more than 700 members—some of whom are posting campaign yard signs and have volunteered to distribute petitions—the group has already revamped its strategy. It had planned to seek a recall vote, based on SMP's "financial difficulties," as provided by the law that created the monorail. The idea now is to aim a petition directly at City Hall, demanding legislative action. The petition would, if successful, prohibit the City Council from granting street rights of way to the monorail. "In a sense, we are trying to head the monorail off at the pass," Stambor says. "With an average 33 percent shortfall in projected revenues, the monorail can't be built to the design and engineering standards they are promising."

Besides a renewed monorail battle, there's a new burst of infighting among the opposing camps. Wilson's fledgling Monorail Now group e-mailed supporters last week to show up at a city- sponsored monorail design hearing to counter the "California-style recall fever" of Monorail Recall. The anti-monorail OnTrack faction, whose members include former Mayor Norm Rice and property owners from downtown, Ballard, and West Seattle, recently filed an appeal against SMP's environmental impact statement. OnTrack is taking flak from another group, Friends of the Monorail. OnTrack, says Friends spokesperson Kevin Orme, is just "trying to stir up trouble yet again." Enough with the stalling, says Orme, "get on with building the monorail—do we need to have yet another election?" There have been three already. Still, two new monorail polls just popped up. A Seattle Times online poll of 1,860 participants logged 57 percent in support of the monorail, while the city's Seattle Channel polled 960 online visitors and found 62.7 percent against the plan.

In the midst of this campaign redux, monorail officials are not shy about expressing their displeasure at those they perceive as opponents. The other day, I caught up to SMP Executive Director Horn to ask about Tim Eyman. The tax- revolt king is challenging SMP's move to set aside a third of the monorail construction jobs for women and ethnic minorities; Eyman thinks that's a violation of state law. Horn said lawyers approved the set-asides. Then he half-smiled and told me: "With Tim Eyman and the monorail, you've got a lot to hate." I wasn't sure what that meant, but I told him I didn't dislike the monorail and would like to see it built. "Well, you'd never know it by what you write," Horn said. He walked off before we could discuss the pros and cons of media cheerleading.

Only a few days earlier, a monorail executive sent an e-mail response to a citizen who had asked about issues raised in a monorail story I wrote. My "article in the Weekly was so divoid [sic] of facts as to be criminal," said the executive, who added that "the shrillness of monorail opponents is extreme—they know no bounds of decency and have no integrity." The monorail hasn't challenged the story ("Monoreality," March 3) and has it linked on its Web site. But, true, some opponents are shrill. And as the executive's e-mail indicates, so are some proponents.

Yet shouldn't a civic project this immense be a fight to the finish? Monorail officials have promised "transparency," but has anyone seen exactly how this life-altering project is going to look, beyond those flattering mock-ups? The question has led to formation of a new group of design professionals headed by architect Philip Beck, called WhatDoesItLookLike.com, which points out that some monorail overhead track switches will be two-and-one-half blocks long and create "a solid concrete lid about 20 feet above the sidewalk." Another group, SaveSeattleCenter.org, led in part by critic Geof Logan, has posted before and after photos of the controversial route through the Center. Dick Falkenbury, father of the monorail, calls the current design a "burden" and hopes bidders come up with a simple system that works. Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, last week said that she and the DSA expected "a light and elegant system that would swoosh through downtown." Instead, "we feel we're getting a heavier, larger, more clumsy system." Talks with SMP have been short on the details needed to make informed decisions, she says. "Do they have the money not just to build it but to operate it, keep the stations clean, and so on?" Joncas says. She's grateful for SMP's efforts. "But it's still not there yet," she says of the promised system. "We have to be persistent about getting answers."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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