Monorail Q&A

The people's train has people hollering at each other. It's that big a deal.

Does approval of Initiative 83, the monorail killer, preclude building any Seattle monorail? Is this really the fourth time we've voted to construct the sky ride? Whose financial prognosis should we believe? Is the owner of a Hummer the Antichrist?

These are among the questions rattling around Seattle's brain as Initiative 83 nears its Nov. 2 vote. Seattle Weekly consulted Seattle Monorail Project officials and supporters and opponents of the 13.7-mile starter line from Crown Hill to West Seattle. We studied the claims of both sides, posed new questions, and reread the enabling legislation passed in Olympia and the ballot measure approved by Seattle voters in 2002. We watched in amusement as an irritated monorail board member, in the heat of a recent editorial-board debate, told a monorail opponent to "sit down and shut up!" The passion on both sides of this issue is palpable. For those who are less certain, we scrutinized the best available tea leaves on the consequences of voting for or against the so-called recall initiative, which is intended to derail the $1.6 billion plan. Here's what we found. In short, if the measure passes, life gets complicated. If I-83 fails, the project moves ahead, with planned groundbreaking early next year and launch in 2009. But that has its own implications.

Q: Would an approved I-83 mean the end of the Seattle Monorail Project?

A: No. As the city attorney's explanatory statement in the state Voters Guide says, "I-83 would not directly affect the SMP's power to collect a 1.4 percent MVET [motor vehicle excise tax] or to plan for additional monorail lines." So SMP could continue to exist and collect taxes. This is the result of I-83's backdoor approach. It is the brainchild of a group of monorail opponents called Monorail Recall, now spearheaded by an allied campaign organization, Yes on I-83. But this is not technically a recall.

The recall feature of the state law that enabled creation of the monorail authority (Chapter 35.95A of the Revised Code of Washington, if you're curious) requires the signatures of 15 percent of registered voters in Seattle—an estimated 54,000 people—in 90 days to bring a public vote to end SMP operations. It also requires a finding by the city attorney (in this case, City Attorney Tom Carr, a longtime monorail backer) that SMP has significant financial problems. Recallers thought those requirements made it virtually impossible to place a recall before voters. So they took another path, a citizens' initiative needing only 17,229 signatures (they got 36,700).

If passed, I-83 would direct the City Council to disallow use of city rights of way—streets and sidewalks—by SMP. Theoretically, SMP could still build tracks. But they'd have to be in somebody's backyard.

Q: But in effect, won't an approved I-83 finish off the Seattle Monorail Project?

A: No. In fact, under I-83, SMP can continue "to plan for additional monorail lines," according to the city attorney's explanatory statement, and would continue to own almost $40 million in property and other assets it has acquired. The City Council could amend or flat out repeal I-83 after two years—effectively re-authorizing the project. Even I-83 proponents agree that a yes vote is intended more as a message for SMP to come up with a better plan than burial of the idea. The monorail's lame reply has too often been simply, "Just build it!" Throw it together any way you want? It's the biggest, most life-altering Seattle public project since Denny Hill was flattened.

The best guess is the agency itself would decide its future. "Because the state law doesn't kick in under these circumstances, there is no applicable law" to determine SMP's fate, says Anne Levinson, the monorail's deputy director. For sure, SMP would continue to collect a 1.4 percent motor vehicle excise tax to pay off the $75 million in debt it has incurred in planning and acquiring property so far. Some opponents would like to see the monorail tax rededicated by the Legislature to Sound Transit's light-rail project, while others would prefer it be used to expand the Metro bus system, perhaps developing a rubber-tired system to take over the dedicated monorail route.

Q: What's the biggest drawback to approving I-83?

A:Like Robert Redford's character said to his campaign manager after being elected in the movie The Candidate, what do we do now? I-83 blocks monorail construction but offers no plan for the future. Structural engineer Jon Magnusson, a spokesperson for the Yes on I-83 campaign, makes no apologies for not offering a better way to go. "Doing this [building the monorail] is worse than doing nothing," he says. Nonetheless, an overwhelming yes vote supplants a viable transportation project with dead air.

Q: Where does that leave the voters?

A:To decide, on Nov. 2, the best of two outcomes. The first option is to vote yes and stick with the mass-transportation status quo, which includes Sound Transit's budding regional rapid transit system, and hope someone comes up with a new monorail plan or a similar transit project. A modified monorail plan eventually could be put to voters, or new money could be diverted to other transportation projects, including, gag, more freeways.

"The monorail does not plan to have free downtown service," like Metro buses offer, notes Henry Aronson of Off Track, another anti-monorail group. "If riders have a free alternative, why would they ever need to ride the monorail anyway?" For that matter, says co-conspirator Magnusson, "With the monorail's $1.6 billion, you could put Wi-Fi in every Metro bus, give all the riders their own DVDs, and make all the buses in the city free!"

Option two: Voters can stand behind the currently planned monorail system, which, while imperfect, can be reworked and has Seattle finally moving forward on a badly needed transportation alternative. "Can we ever get anything done in Seattle?" asks monorail board Chair Tom Weeks. "The fundamental things that the core of voters approved [in 2002]—14 miles of track, 19 stations, trains every few minutes, quiet operations, connections to other transportation—are being implemented." If this initiative succeeds, he says, it will leave a "devastating" scar on attempts to set public policy. Remember also, Weeks adds, that Sound Transit's light-rail system will boot all buses from the downtown transit tunnel, putting them back on clogged surface streets. And try to envision those streets once the Alaskan Way Viaduct is shut down for years of replacement work. In reality, Seattle faces almost a decade of gridlock worsened by the construction of alternatives. Building the monorail would add to the headache, but, says Weeks, wouldn't it be nice to see it standing there when all that dust settles?

Q: Why not dedicate our efforts to expanding the bus and light- rail systems?

A: That makes some sense. Metro Transit's new "Magic Bus," for example, is an environmental leap forward. The 235 General Motors hybrid buses will save an estimated 75,000 gallons of fuel a year, what GM calls "the equivalent of thousands of hybrid cars." Also, the planned Westlake/South Lake Union streetcar, questionable as its benefits might be to landowner Paul Allen's already deep pockets, is arguably a pleasant step back to the future (nostalgia and fuel savings), as would be an expanded waterfront trolley. There is talk that now is the time to extend that line, since the trolley barn has to be moved to make way for work on Olympic Sculpture Park—maybe running the trolley up to the new Amgen campus that abuts Myrtle Edwards Park, if the biotech giant is willing to chip in.

Sound Transit, meanwhile, is building a $2.4 billion light-rail leg from Westlake Center almost to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That agency needs billions more to build lines to the University District and Northgate, and to finish the Sea-Tac Airport connection. Monorail recallers argue that light rail is the real mass-transit solution. "Let's protect the current taxing capacity to work for a system that will truly work for the region," former Seattle mayor and I-83 supporter Charles Royer said at a recent press conference, "not one that's for Seattle only." The complete 24-mile Northgate-to-Sea-Tac light-rail line is projected to cost roughly $6 billion, though critics say it will be more like $8 billion, which probably means it will be $10 billion. Monorail supporter Peter Sherwin contends the monorail is a better bargain and a candidate for expansion, noting that the light-rail leg to Sea-Tac costs an average of more than $170 million per mile to build, while the monorail's Green Line would be about $120 million per mile. Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit's communications chief, views it another way. "In fact, the average Seattle taxpayer is paying way less for light rail than for monorail," he says. The budgeted construction amount for the first leg is $2.1 billion, he says. "Of that, the feds are picking up $500 million, which means the local share for the light-rail project is, oddly enough, $1.6 billion," same as the monorail, and both first phases are about 14 miles long. Ilgenfritz notes also that light rail's cost is spread among taxpayers in Seattle, Lake Forest Park, Shoreline, Tukwila, SeaTac, Skyway, Burien, Renton, Des Moines, Normandy Park, Kent, Auburn, and Federal Way. All monorail costs are borne by Seattle taxpayers.

But then, the monorail is a Seattle-only system, and eliminating it leaves the city's western flank without rapid transit. "Ballard and West Seattle are especially densely populated areas," says Sherwin, "and Sound Transit has no plans to serve those areas." He also says federal funding will be sought to help pay for the next phase of the monorail, extending east.

As for Sound Transit as the great, green hope, don't get too carried away by light rail, say monorail fans. Eight years after approval by voters in three counties, Sound Transit has added buses and heavy rail to the regional commute but only 1.6 miles of light rail—in downtown Tacoma. "Sound Transit's light-rail system has so many woes that it's barely alive," gripes monorail supporter Don Kirk, "yet it is getting very little negative press coverage." Besides, scrapping the monorail in favor of light rail would eliminate unique commuter fun, riding high over stalled traffic, with a panoramic view of the city. SMP Executive Director Joel Horn vows the agency will deliver a delightful sky ride integrated with ground transport, including 90 bus stops, with transfers to nearby light rail, ferries, street cars, and FlexCar locations. "It's a great opportunity for people to go back and forth," Horn says. Is it an integrated system, intertwined with other transportation modes, as promised? With the bus system, it is. Voters will have to decide if "integrated" also means walking a few blocks to catch a trolley, train, or boat. But who can't use the exercise—or a stop-off for a beer?

Q: Does a yes vote mean we will never be able to build a monorail here?

A: No, despite what monorail officials say. "Basically," opines Deputy Director Levinson, approval of the initiative "forecloses the monorail transportation option for Seattle." The initiative language tends to support that view: "From and after the effective date of this enactment, the construction, operation or use of City right- of-way for monorail transit facilities is prohibited. Any agreement, contract, permit, license, grant or other authorization for use of City right-of-way for monorail transit facilities shall be revoked and declared null and void. The enactment shall not extend to any monorail transit facilities in operation prior to December 31, 2003." But, as Levinson allows, just as voters could approve that law, they could reverse its effect in a future vote to approve a new project, whatever that might be. The Legislature also could reopen the streets to a new monorail proposal, and again, the City Council can void the initiative after two years.

Q: Have we voted yes three times to build the monorail?

A: No. Feet-dragging Seattle voters rejected rapid-transit proposals in 1968 and 1970, but by 1996 they'd had it with all-day rush hours and approved a light-rail proposal, creating Sound Transit. (It took two votes to do it, however. The light-rail proposal failed at the polls in 1995.) That whetted appetites for a monorail, too. In 1997, city voters gave approval to taxi driver Dick Falkenbury's visionary proposal to explore a commuter monorail, and in 2000 they overwhelmingly approved $6 million for the advisory Elevated Transportation Co. to formulate a construction proposal. In 2002, by 877 out of 189,000 votes cast, we authorized actual construction of the starter Green Line for $1.75 billion, paid for by a tax added to license plate costs. (See "The 2002 Measure," p. 33.) Cumulatively, a majority of voters— fighting City Hall and some developers all the way—have repeatedly made it clear they want a ride in the sky, earning the monorail the moniker "the people's train." Now City Hall, at least, is also a believer. "We can't keep second-guessing our decision to build a new monorail," says Mayor Greg Nickels, "and risk continued gridlock and frustration. We need to move forward."

The Nov. 2 vote will be essentially a ratification or rejection of the 2002 construction plan. That plan has changed significantly, say monorail opponents. Proponents say it remains faithful to the concept. However you define it, the plan has evolved because the tax revenue projections were overblown by as much as $300 million—of which at least $150 million has been made up through cuts, creative financing, and settlement of back debt payments, says SMP. Among the disputed aspects of the current plan: Trains will be routed through, rather than around, Seattle Center; the Seattle Center–to–Westlake Center monorail will be razed; four miles of the new line might have a restrictive single track; parking is minimal; and stations have generally been downsized (though one, Delridge, has been upsized to 10 stories). Elevators have replaced most escalators (good or bad?), support columns and rail supports will be bulkier than planned, and sky-blocking overhead switch platforms will be immense. Critic and respected engineer Magnusson contends that even more of those switches will be needed to expand the line, and if they're not built in the first phase, adding them later will mean shutting down the system for six months at a time. (SMP officials, who question Magnusson's transit-engineering qualifications, strongly disagree, though at this early stage of planning the second phase of the monorail system, such details are unexplored. For more on the second phase, go to www.elevated.org/project/secondphase/).

SMP also wound up with only one qualified bidder, Cascadia Monorail, headed by multinationals Fluor and Washington Group International, putting more pressure on the project's finances. The cutbacks have also compromised the line's passenger capacity, says Magnusson, due in part to station platform downsizing from a track length of 130 feet to 90 feet. "This is not mass transit," he says, "and it's in the wrong corridor to solve traffic problems." SMP is projecting 69,000 daily riders (or, more accurately, rides, since some riders make more than one trip) by 2020, about 11 years after the planned opening. The numbers are of critical importance, because after 2020 the monorail tax can be used to pay only capital costs, with all operational and maintenance expenses covered by fares. (Critic Aronson points out that the 69,000 projection has not been updated since 2002.)

At a recent editorial-board interview at Seattle Weekly's offices, engineer Magnusson got SMP's Weeks to admit that the agency's ridership survey includes a lot of far-flung potential riders—miles away in Northeast Seattle, for example. In a tense exchange, Magnusson barked at Weeks: "Just answer the [Northeast ridership] question—yes or no, yes or no!" Weeks shot back: "Sit down and shut up!" Then Weeks said SMP stands by its forecast but is doing a new rider study; it expects to have better numbers soon, likely after the election. Weeks also notes that the smaller stations were requested by the public at more than 100 hearings and through countless community contacts, and he insists that capacity is not compromised by shorter loading platforms. (No matter where you enter them, the monorail's trains will have walk-through access.)

Q: Why did they narrow four miles of track from two parallel rails, one in each direction, to a shared single rail?

A: To cut costs. SMP argues the one-rail bottlenecks will add only a few minutes to each trip. But delays would become more pronounced if the line is extended as planned and trains are added. Imagine an increasingly trafficked two-way street that occasionally narrows to one lane. On the plus side, guideway columns would be slimmed down and be less intrusive in some neighborhoods, and less property might have to be acquired. Of course, bidder/contractor Cascadia Monorail could still come up with its own version of the line that restores two rails throughout.

Q: What do opponents dislike most about the monorail plan?

A: Its impact and the specified route, two issues not completely addressed in the 2002 vote to build the line.

Of particular concern is the gerrymandered swing through one of the city's greatest parks, Seattle Center, the old world's fair grounds. Then there's sticker shock from the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET), which kicked in at a full 1.4 percent for the first time in June. It has some car owners up in arms by adding $140 to the cost of renewing license plates for a $10,000 car. With the monorail relying wholly and Sound Transit in part on an MVET to pay to build their systems, a car owner whose renewal tags might otherwise have been a bargain $40 could end up paying an additional $200 or more, annually through 2040.

Neighbors of planned monorail stops are riled by minimal provisions for parking, which they say will force cars to be parked on nearby side streets. Though $25 million is budgeted for parking, monorail officials have not sufficiently addressed this issue except to plan to acquire more property. The monorail's path, eating up virtually one lane of traffic or parking from Northwest Seattle to Southwest Seattle, will wipe out 500 parking spaces downtown alone. Critics think SMP is too much in love with the "kiss and ride" concept, whereby one spouse drops the other off at a station and drives home, averting a need for parking near the monorail.

Design is another fear factor. Though nothing is yet writ in cement—SMP says it will reveal more specific designs after the election—the monorail was envisioned by many as a sleek commuter line from Ballard, swinging gently onto Second Avenue downtown, and gliding on to West Seattle. Now, to opponents, it's a hulking design out of scale, especially in residential neighborhoods. Critic Magnusson likes to display sketches of how Seattle's Second Avenue will be overwhelmed by monorail columns, then a street scene from Vancouver, home of the much-lauded SkyTrain. The B.C. street is calm and unchanged because, downtown, the SkyTrain runs in a tunnel.

For many, though, the most controversial change from what seemed to be on the table in the 2002 election is the Seattle Center route. The planned Green Line generally follows the voter-approved route in Ballard and West Seattle, but postelection pressure from property owners, including billionaire Paul Allen, who wants the train to run through his Experience Music Project, as the old monorail now does, has resulted in an ungainly swing through the heart of Seattle Center and down Fifth Avenue, then over to Second Avenue. Fifth Avenue, of course, is already served by the beloved (and moneymaking) 1962 Seattle Center monorail.

Like major recall backer Martin Selig today, Belltown property owners on and near Second Avenue wanted to protect their investments from the train's intrusion— another reason for the Seattle Center–Fifth Avenue route. I-83 is sort of Selig's revenge: With $344,000 in campaign donations, he has bankrolled almost half of the $745,000 (and counting) effort by Yes on I-83, seeking what the Belltown property owners got—an unspoiled view.

Allen, by the way, appears to be staying on the sidelines this election, making no comments and so far investing no money to stop I-83. Of course, if the initiative prevails, Allen would still get new light-rail service to his SoDo stadium and office complexes and would likely see the Center monorail continue to serve EMP. As usual for America's third-richest human, he winds up with the most toys.

Q: Whatever its route, wouldn't the monorail be better for the environment?

A: Yes. It will take cars off the road. But, the monorail hopes, not too many cars (see the Hummer question below). The projection is that a monorail will decrease vehicle trips in Seattle by 1 percent. Conversely, the elevated line would increase visual and, to some degree, noise pollution—ironically at a time the city is thinking about going in the opposite direction when replacing the elevated eyesore called the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Still, as monorail board Chair Weeks points out, take a gander at Sound Transit's 30-foot-wide slabs of concrete being built to elevate some of its rails. "Talk about visual pollution," he says.

And take a longer look into the future of what a monorail would bring, Weeks adds. Construction would create 2,000 jobs and produce more than $600 million in new income, though that would be offset by the relocation and/or loss of more than 1,000 jobs, 80 businesses, and 1,400 parking spaces. SMP projects lots of business growth along the line and suggests a psychological benefit: a first step in changing the way we commute in Seattle, of getting us out of our costly and polluting vehicles and taking a low-stress alternative to work and play. The monorail won't solve gridlock, but at the very least it might tamp down road rage and the growth of gridlock.

Q: We know the monorail overshot on revenue projections. What's happening now?

A: While it's no longer on time, the monorail is on or under budget, according to SMP. But the real spending has yet to begin, presumably when Cascadia begins building the system early next year. City Hall has hired an outside consultant to do a complete financial study before it approves or disapproves construction permits. The study is unlikely to be completed before the election, however, and the monorail might not release details of the construction bid until after the vote. Argues Mayor Nickels, an I-83 opponent: "There clearly needs to be accountability as the new monorail is designed and built. But I-83 does not add accountability, it just adds more delays."

Why is SMP not disclosing bid details until after the election? Weeks claims the agency would be prematurely releasing proprietary financial data. "When we have an agreement [with the bidder, Cascadia], we will publicize that agreement and hold public hearings. We cannot change that course of action to try to influence an election." Last week, I-83 supporters filed a lawsuit challenging the monorail to release the bid documents, and a hearing on the lawsuit was set for Thursday, Oct. 21. An independent engineer says the monorail could release the documents if it so chose, noting that SMP has always promised "transparency" to the public.

The bid has to be in the ballpark of the $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion dedicated to construction. If it's under, great; if it's over, more cutbacks loom, although that could be a positive for some if, say, the controversial and costly Seattle Center swing is scuttled. Whatever the bid, the mayor (up for election next year) and City Council members swear that a construction plan that doesn't pencil out will not go forward. And SMP insists all is going smoothly now.

Finance Director Jonathan Buchter says, "Our revenue projections are right where we want them"—the key word being "projections." As with almost any transportation project, the future is based on the best available guesses. The car-license tax was supposed to bring in $4 million a month and grow to meet revenue targets. But overestimates and a goodwill move to cut the tax collection rate in half the first year dropped the monthly collections to $2 million to $2.5 million. With a higher assessment rate started in June, the average is now closer to $4 million ($3.3 million in June, $3.8 million in July, and $4.1 million in August). That's still not all the taxes that can be collected. SMP says it should have gotten $4.3 million in August, for example. But "we never expect to see 100 percent collections," says Buchter. The reasons include scofflaws who avoid the Seattle tax by registering their cars outside the city and SMP's realization that many cars change hands during the year and the tax notification system lags behind those sales.

SMP has spent about $115 million since its 2002 launch, with about a third of that going to property acquisition. The monorail's adjusted budget for 2004 is now $128.1 million. That consists of $58.7 million for operations and $69.4 million for capital expenses, such as land purchase and fixed assets. SMP has been steadily cutting its spending, Buchter says, including an $11 million reduction in consulting costs. "We expect there will be additional reductions in the 2005 budget," he adds. Besides the city study, a routine state audit of SMP's books is under way, with a report expected possibly late next month. Bottom line? The original $1.75 billion voter-approved project is now projected to cost about $150 million less. That's under budget. Will tax revenue and growth meet SMP's goal? That's the $1.6 billion question.

Q: Now the important question: Are Hummer drivers evil?

A: Hey, they're the monorail's saviors. SMP can't succeed without their kind. Just as buses are the key to the monorail's ridership success—without Metro delivering and picking up monorail riders, the air train simply won't fly—vehicle owners are crucial to SMP's financial fortunes. The motor vehicle tax pays all the agency's bills. Most important to SMP is the model and year of vehicle that can be taxed. A $5,000 car, for example, earns SMP $70 a year. Yet if we all drove $5,000 cars, the monorail project would suck gas. Furthermore, the agency has based its success on steadily rising revenue—a growth rate of 6.1 percent annually—which Aronson and other critics say is overblown and doesn't count cars that will be taken off the road. Either way, the monorail financial plan will fail without more, newer, ever-costlier cars registered by Seattleites. Victory would be certain if everyone hit the streets with a new $100,000 gas-guzzling Hummer, though a nice $20,000 hybrid is certainly welcome. Simply put, says SMP financial chief Buchter, "We want them to buy a new car." Ironic, huh?

Q: What happens to those I-83 lawsuits we heard about?

A: There are several possible outcomes. The state Supreme Court allowed the election to proceed, saying it needed more time to review a pair of last-minute challenges to the initiative brought by the monorail agency: whether 10,000 anti-monorail signatures were illegally collected and whether the presumed recall process was illegally circumvented by the citizens' initiative. If voters disapprove of I-83, the court might deem the legal issues moot, leaving them undecided. Or it could conclude they're important enough to be ruled on anyway. If the initiative passes, the court will issue rulings. SMP has spent about $150,000 in legal fees fighting I-83, and putting the measure on the ballot has added $890,000 to November election costs— expenses borne by taxpayers. Best guess? Conventional wisdom says the high court will find the initiative illegal and void the election.

A: Then all this may be for naught.

Q: Well, the vote will send SMP a message, one way or another. But yes, maybe for naught. Democracy, it's a wild and crazy guy.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

The 2002 Measure

Here's the summary of the ballot proposal that Seattle voters approved in 2002. For the complete text, go to www.elevated.org/_downloads/board/petition1.pdf

Citizen Petition No. 1 proposes to create a Seattle monorail authority and implement the initial phase of a city monorail system by constructing and operating a 14 mile monorail line from Ballard and West Seattle to Downtown (the Green Line).

The monorail authority would be a new governmental authority with a nine-member governing board. The members of the Elevated Transportation Company would serve as the Interim Board. Within 14 months following voter approval of this proposition, a monorail authority Board, nominated and appointed by a combination of the Interim Board, the City Council and the Mayor, shall assume governance. Beginning 2003, two positions shall be elected, and between 2005 and 2009, the monorail authority will submit a proposal to the voters to make a majority of the Board positions elected.

To finance the initial segment of the monorail system, the monorail authority could levy and collect a 1.4% motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). The MVET would annually cost car owners in the city of Seattle 1.4% of the value of their vehicle; e.g., the owner of a $10,000 car would pay $140 a year. Without further voter approval, the monorail authority would not be able to: (1) issue more than $1.5 billion of debt (in 2002 dollars) for an initial line and second-line planning; (2) continue to levy the MVET after all the initial phase debt has been paid; or (3) use the MVET after 2020 to pay for the noncapital costs of operating or maintaining the Green Line.

 
comments powered by Disqus