Blame the Media

And City Hall. Just about everybody but a clueless board, it seems, is to blame for the monorail debacle.

Kristina Hill, the Seattle Monorail Project's acting board chair, probably has it right when she says it wasn't simply the humongous $11 billion construction and financing figure that led to the monorail's death at the polls Tuesday, Nov 8. It was "a huge mistake," she thinks, releasing the $11 billion plan for the new line last summer without having announced and explained it first. That gave monorail opponents the opportunity to flesh the number out of thousands of pages of documents and tip off the media. Once the boggling headlines hit Seattle doorsteps the next morning—a wake-up call not only for taxpayers but for the equally unaware monorail board of directors, as well—the agency was in a defensive stance from which it never recovered. The project's transportation experts were suddenly seen as amateurs, and the public stopped listening.

Not even the resignation of SMP's top two officials could save an experimental project grounded in shaky, idealistic promises—on time, on budget, nothing hidden from the public. A subsequent financial plan seemed to only compound the agency's ineptness: How is it they took two and a half years to come up with an unworkable proposal that could cost up to $1 billion a mile, with interest, but only 38 days to come up with a half-price, $7 billion alternative? More importantly, nobody—at least not the voters who overwhelmingly agreed to stop the three-year project in its tracks—believed it. There had been four earlier elections in which voters approved study and then construction of a proposed $1.6 billion (before interest), 13.7-mile line—which became a $2.1 billion, 10.6-mile proposal. Yet those earlier votes merely sanctioned the monorail dream. On Nov. 8, when for the first time voters understood the true cost, they reacted to reality.

The sad exodus at SMP headquarters on Third Avenue has already begun. Only four of eight voting members bothered to show up for the board's meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 9. They huddled at one end of their big U-shaped executive table and decided the agency would begin handing out pink slips and cease to exist by, perhaps, as soon as New Year's. Only a few months ago, the board had ceremoniously accepted a bid offer by Cascadia Monorail to build the first-stage Green Line, with kudos and handshakes all around. Then came the $11 billion bombshell, the "creative financing" invention of then–Executive Director Joel Horn. He and then–board Chair Tom Weeks had since resigned, leaving the board to now sweep away the carnage. "The resolution is before us, number 45-39," Hill announced momentously at the meeting, "authorizing staff to take steps necessary to terminate the Seattle Monorail Project." She paused. "I think it is with some sadness for all of us that we consider this resolution, but it is a necessity after the vote last night and our commitment to follow the will of the voters." The lonely foursome approved the measure unanimously. The mood was funereal, and high-tech video screens in the upstairs business offices were still flickering with hopeful images of a train that would never arrive. The vote turned the videotape into instant memorabilia—representing the monorail's historic place in kitschy local transportation failures, alongside the never-built R.H. Thomson Freeway and the never-flown Boeing Supersonic Transport. Along with monorail stationery and other paraphernalia, the video is a keepsake surely destined for eBay. The agency itself will likely be remembered only as a new bullshit punch line: "Don't be monorailing me!"

Resigned to self-imposed fate, SMP hopes to quickly sell off agency assets or see that they are transferred to the city or another agency. The details will be worked out in coming weeks and months as City Hall, the state, and other transit agencies chime in with ideas. Property proceeds likely will be used to pay off the agency's $110 million debt and perhaps shorten the time that the 1.4 percent motor vehicle excise tax will have to be collected from Seattle car owners. "We'll try to match the tax to the debt once we sell the land," said Hill, indicating the tax duration could be shortened or the tax itself lowered. But, says SMP interim executive director John Haley, "No equivocation . . . this is the death of a viable urban transportation project."

Haley's blunt and decisive personality in the past few months was in stark contrast to the past few years of toe-digging dillydallying by other current and former agency officials. He has already told the monorail board that one of its final acts is to quickly fire him because he's not needed. (Asked how much longer he might stay, Haley looked at his watch and said, "What time is it?") He hopes SMP will devise "a very quick strategy to dispose of the assets," including more than $60 million in property right-of-way. An absolute minimum of staffers will be retained to close shop, he says. "Write what you want to write," Haley tells reporters: "Resolutely, expeditiously. . . . We're going quickly."

Alas, the monorail dream had come so close to birth, Hill says. "We were within two months of being able to build a monorail," she insisted, referring to the shortened, less expensive plan turned down by voters that might have broken ground in January. She concedes that project directors made mistakes but is "dumbfounded" by the lack of support from City Hall. In particular, she says, Mayor Greg Nickels had begun to "bully people as if he was after your milk money." Indeed, the mayor and City Council stood back and watched this wreck happen and now are moving swiftly to pick over the property corpses, maybe turning some station sites into parks. Hill, like many others, says she doesn't believe another monorail project will soon rise again in Seattle. Haley agrees: "It's dead." He still feels the monorail collapse was due in part to the media's "trivialization of the project." Reporters, while perhaps rightly focusing on the initial extraordinary interest costs, he suggests, continued to zero in on the financial charges even after the second, more modest plan was launched and failed to clearly explain the difference between present and future dollars. There was all that stuff about "drink the Kool-Aid," Haley says dourly, when the new plan was quite palatable.

But then, he wasn't around for the whole torturous, secretive, dead-end ride since 2002, the often questionable spending of $185 million in taxpayer money, and what was an unofficial monorail policy of trivializing critics. A bunker mentality had set in, as well, after overblown revenue projections went south, and prying reporters were patted on the head and told they just didn't understand the process. When Seattle Weekly reported in February, for example, that construction and financing charges could soar as high as $6 billion, SMP officials tut-tutted and called it a worst-case scenario—even as some of them were covertly preparing a plan that would cost twice as much. It was a pared-down version of that plan—at $7 billion—that was rejected by voters this month. Still, Haley's right when he looks back at the what-might-have-beens and sees a great opportunity lost. Posted on a window of the SMP offices is a monorail schedule of the future, showing trains flowing every six minutes through downtown. "Look at that when you leave," Haley says. "That is the type of service you're never going to see here."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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