Monorail Train Wreck

The board has scrapped a ridiculous $11.4 billion financing plan, and two top officials have quit. Who's going to clean up this mess?

Resigned Executive Director Joel Horn: still a believer.

Resigned Executive Director Joel Horn: still a believer.

It came with a sigh, a shrug, and, ultimately, the resignations of the top two officials. The Seattle Monorail Project’s embarrassingly awful $11.4 billion financing plan is dead. The agency’s board came to that conclusion on Thursday, June 30, and four days later Executive Director Joel Horn and board Chair Tom Weeks took the brunt of the hit by quitting. The monorail itself is likely going to need a Heimlich maneuver, performed by the voting public, to survive. After three years of devising a way to pay for the proposed $2.1 billion starter Green Line from Crown Hill to West Seattle, it took only a few minutes for board members to say that the money plan stunk—and that they had no idea where to go from there. “Everything’s on the table now,” Weeks said optimistically before he quit—a sentiment echoed by others throughout three hours of board spitballing.

Except everything already had been on the table, hadn’t it? SMP officials had insisted only days prior that floating limitless loans with $9 billion in interest over 50-plus years was their best available financing plan. They have only five and a half months before construction partner Cascadia Monorail can pick up and walk away. How could a proposal surface with the same crippling legal and financial constraints, including a 30 percent revenue shortfall, that would be an improvement? More number jiggling? More corner cutting? SMP has already stripped down the originally envisioned system, leaving fewer rail miles, fewer stations, shorter trains, and longer waits for riders. Any more carving and it will be a bus on a bridge.

Three consecutive evenings of public hearings on the Cascadia Monorail bid agreement—and the now-dead financing plan—got under way Tuesday, July 5. Would a solution emerge, perhaps suggested by someone who lives far from the monorail Kool-Aid pitcher?

At a packed Ballard High School gym Tuesday night, the mostly older crowd supported—gauging by applause—a monorail for Seattle but loathed the plan for this one. Some preferred buses, many liked light rail, and everyone dreaded the noise of potential monorail construction down 15th Avenue Northwest in Ballard. Still, resident Don Ware told the audience it’s Seattle’s irritating habit to always say no to civic innovation without ever knowing why: “You guys haven’t had an answer in the 62 years I’ve been alive, because the people of Seattle always have a reason to say no.”

But several other speakers ticked off the reasons this monorail plan is folly: huge columns in the streets, fewer stations with smaller platforms, two-car trains not much bigger than a large bus, monster overhead switching platforms, the need for a car (to get to the station, where there will be little parking, and to pay for the monorail—whose revenue is based on a car licensing tax), and, in the words of an elderly woman shaking her finger at the SMP board seated on stage, the “secrecy and the arrogance” of monorail officials when dealing with neighborhoods. And one more thing, said slow-drawling Larry Porter of Ballard: In that last vote, which would have recalled the monorail, a yes vote meant no, and a no vote meant yes. “Now what kind of shenanigans is that?”

At the board meeting last week, critics lined up to say “we told you so,” and one, Geof Logan, asked almost everyone in the room to resign. He and others told the suddenly expendable Horn, sitting within lunging distance across the table, that he should be fired. Horn had no comment then, but after a few days of twisting in the wind, he and Weeks, the mad scientists of the monorail “experiment,” as it was called, threw themselves from the train.

In a joint communiqué appropriately issued on Independence Day, Horn and Weeks implied that they had become heavy baggage that was weighing down progress. “On Friday [July 1], when I left the SMP office,” Horn wrote, “I wasn’t planning to resign. But after talking with my wife and family and reflecting on the magnitude of the issues we face today, I knew stepping down was the right thing to do.” He allowed that “my continued presence as executive director is proving to be a distraction from the real issue at hand—the importance of building mass transit in our city.” He and Weeks took “full responsibility for the current situ-ation and feel that it is in the best interest of the project to step down,” convinced nonetheless that “a monorail for the city of Seattle is within reach.”

At a press conference the next day, acting board Chair Kristina Hill, who says SMP design and construction chief Tom Horkan has become interim executive director, worried about “voter fatigue” if a new monorail plan should suddenly be put on the upcoming September primary election ballot, as some supporters are suggesting. She said that scrapping the existing bid and “starting from scratch would be a mistake.” Hill’s still hopeful the current plan can be modified and saved, which monorail critic Henry Aronson says is another example of a board that is “drunk in the wheelhouse.”

Aronson, the former Port of Seattle commissioner, was booted from an SMP meeting room Tuesday, July 5, when he tried to sit in on Hill’s press conference. A press aide also shut the window blinds on him. But Aronson hung around in the waiting area to take a few swipes at SMP’s leadership—it has spent $182 million and has “ruined the dreams of the believer,” he said—and at the monorail inexperience of Hill, who teaches urban design and landscape archi-tecture at the University of Washington: “She’s a professor of landscape gardening!” Aronson said the project should discontinue spending its $4 million monthly budget and turn the reins over to “adults.”

Monorail supporter Peter Sherwin urged everyone not to overreact. “It’s not the technology that’s being questioned,” he said, “it’s the management.” He agrees that SMP’s leadership and public relations need serious regrooming. But what is the city going to do about the Ballard-to-West Seattle gridlock, certain to get worse with Sound Transit construction downtown and when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is replaced? “You can’t just put a stake in [the monorail] without first deciding that.”

It’s true that SMP still has wiggle room within current margins—cutting more costs by eliminating a part of the route not voter-mandated, namely the costly, controversial swing through Seattle Center and down Fifth Avenue. Officials could also split up portions of the jumbo design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) contract and rebid it in search of savings.

But a fatal bump in the road remains, one that critics have red-flagged for years: a single source of revenue. From the start, opponents warned that relying on a 1.4 percent motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) on Seattle vehicle licenses was folly. Voters narrowly approved the one-tax plan in 2002, perhaps in part without understanding—or being fully apprised of—its limits. Sound Transit’s initial budget problems, for example, could have sunk light-rail plans had the agency relied on only the MVET it collects. But Sound Transit also gets revenue from a retail sales-and-use tax, a rental-car tax, and the federal government, limiting its need to borrow long-term. With only the MVET, the monorail project was to be self-sufficient.

SMP reluctantly revealed in 2003 that its MVET projections were overblown by 30 percent to 50 percent, and it really never recovered. Officials ultimately concocted a 50-plus-year, 100 percent mortgage that indebted generations of Seattleites and required them, if they really wanted to build this alternative to gridlock, to buy more and preferably increasingly expensive cars to meet SMP’s revenue growth needs. Board members seemed to have discovered this only the other night as they tied a toe tag on the plan. It’s “simply not workable,” said Sue Secker. “This plan just won’t fly,” echoed Cleve Stockmeyer. “What do we need to do” now? asked Paul Toliver. “We have to start listening better,” said Cindi Laws. “We need to be creative,” said Hill. Or maybe even pay attention: Jeanne Kohl-Welles said she didn’t know about the $11.4 billion figure until she read it in the paper. “I think,” added Steve Williamson, “we missed an important step” by not realizing the plan would require massive loan interest. The unwieldy but crucial MVET growth rate, he also noted, “is the bedrock of all our projections.” If the estimates are wrong, the project as planned is screwed.

Well, it’s screwed and always has been, said Krista Camenzid of the watchdog group OnTrack. She presented board members with her latest MVET workup, using the agency’s own figures. “You do not have enough money to build the Green Line,” period, she said. Next idea?

Though the board did what bureaucracies usually do when they have a problem—it formed a committee to study it—the elephant in the room was another public vote. It would be the fifth since 1997, when the father of the monorail, Seattle cabbie Dick Falkenbury, first envisioned a sleek people’s train sliding along a pretty skyway in Seattle—one without bulky freeway-style columns and sun-blotting overhead switching platforms. But if there’s a viable new proposal, why not vote again? It’s been a frustrating and inept performance by a government agency. Yet voters repeatedly have said they fancy an elevated system. Who knows? With an expanded revenue base and redesign, maybe Seattle will finally get the monorail it wants.

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