There may be no snow in the Cascades, but Seattle's hillsides are slicker than slick. The state of our politics and various megaprojects are tempting us out onto terrain from which there is no easy return. Let's take a look at recent developments.
Sports Pork: Because we couldn't say no to the demands of Paul Allen's Seahawks and the Nintendo-backed Mariners, taxpayers are stuck pouring millions into two new stadiums. This, we were told, was the cost of keeping Seattle world class. Then-Gov. Gary Locke even declared an emergency to hold a special election to "save" the Seahawks from moving to Los Angeles. By the way, L.A. still doesn't have an NFL football franchise but has maintained world-class status just the same. In any event, the Sonics were given favors, too—including a complete renovation of KeyArena. But that was nine years and another owner ago. Now, Starbucks billionaire Howard Schultz wants his due: a rerenovation of the arena that will give the team new revenue sources with which to pay overpriced stars. In addition, the improvements would be paid for by extending taxes that are currently paying for perks the Mariners and Seahawks had gotten. Schultz argues that he deserves the same kind of megadeal bennies that were coughed up for the other sports franchises in town. He says it's his turn and a matter of equity. One of the things he wants is to share in the same tax revenue stream that benefits local arts groups. Is basketball now an art? Megadeal-making has become one.
Elevated or inflated? Nothing is heading faster down the slippery slope than the monorail, which really is starting to look like Sound Transit on stilts. Both share the motto: Deliver less, cost more, and extend into infinity or a financial abyss, whichever comes first.
The monorail's overseers and single bidder are still secretly dickering over the terms of their contract and are reported to be $150 million to $200 million apart, a fact first reported in Seattle Weekly in November (see "The Track Is Clear," Nov. 3, 2004). That difference suggests the project will be more expensive than approved or will be scaled back. The monorail's minions are busy in Olympia seeking to jigger the rules to give the project more time, more flexibility, and more money. They're seeking to extend payback terms for the bonds, a tactic that could add hundreds of millions to the cost (see "A $6 Billion Monorail?" on p. 11). One new bill proposes to extend the current monorail tax to new vehicles.
The issue of long-term cost is worth considering. The true amount taxpayers are on the hook for with the Green Line is estimated at between $5 billion and $6 billion in today's dollars, when you include interest payments. But everyone agrees—opponents and proponents alike—that the monorail doesn't make sense unless it's built citywide. One Ballard–to–West Seattle line won't transform the city into the collection of dense, urban neighborhoods needed to make the system viable. (Where else will riders come from?) If each new monorail segment costs what the Green Line costs and is financed on the same terms—generously assuming no cost overruns and no inflation—that would mean that the tab for a stripped-down system could reach $35 billion. And that doesn't include any subsidy to operate the system.
To quote Sen. Patty Murray, doesn't this all sound "very, very impossible"? Wouldn't it be better to sit down, now that we know the likely costs, and ask ourselves, "If we had $35 billion to spend, what would we spend it on?" A fully funded school system? More cops? Open libraries? Restored social services? A missile-defense shield? We could have all of it and cash left over.
Sweetheart deals: The city is selling a big hunk of Seattle Center property to the Gates Foundation and has also sold South Lake Union parcels to Paul Allen. Near Gas Works Park, King County is looking at selling off a choice piece of property to a private developer, despite neighborhood opposition. Tough economic times, apparently, call for tough measures, like selling off public assets without fully investigating the opportunities or giving the locals first crack. As The Seattle Times reported this week, the city didn't even appraise the land it sold to Gates—it tailored a deal for a predetermined buyer. In doing so, the city enhanced its official bid to be America's Corporate Welfare Queen City. Everyone involved seemed to think this was a great idea, which speaks to the next problem.
One party rule: The worst trend is the lack of challenge to City Hall. Sure, candidates are falling all over themselves to take down council member Richard Conlin. He has four heavyweight declared opponents (so far) and must feel like the bleeding man in a shark tank. Sadly, he's one of the few council members who is willing to question the city's priorities. But the problem is bigger, and I'm not talking about the mayor's girth. Greg Nickels is heading for re-election virtually unopposed. The neighborhoods have no local hero to put forward; the town's newly energized Republican minority seems satisfied with being blog blowhards; and liberals are willing to accept Nickels' No Billionaire Left Behind policies as long as he says "yes" to everyone.
How far have we slid down this slippery slope? There isn't even an amusing gag candidate on the horizon.