Time for a Mercy Killing

Unfortunately, reports of the monorail's demise are greatly exaggerated.

And all men kill the thing they love, By all let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!

—Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

The monorail has become the Terri Schiavo of Seattle civic projects. A board of largely unelected stewards is brain-dead from Kool-Aid consumption. The project is sustained with a feeding tube of tax dollars that are, well, going down the tube. The monorail cannot be built within budget without modifications that make it even less tenable, nor will it be able to perform as promised. Luckily, unlike other regional boondoggles, the monorail measure city voters approved in 2002 essentially left us with a kind of living will, a pledge that the project would rather die than fail to live up to grand expectations. Even the originator of the monorail dream, Dick Falkenbury, has said death is preferable to building a seriously flawed project.

It’s time for the political leaders to step forward, stop hiding, and tell Seattle the truth: The best option for the city is a mercy killing.

Last week, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels took a step in that direction with a letter that seemed to deliver the coup de grâce to a project he had doggedly supported until recently. Nickels asked the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) board to decide by Sept. 15 whether to ask voters in November to approve changes to the plan that might salvage the troubled line. Without voter involvement in November, Nickels effectively said, the city would bring the project to a standstill, presumably by refusing to issue permits to build the Green Line from Ballard to West Seattle.

Nickels’ big-stick deadline was deemed by some as a death sentence because, first of all, it puts SMP on a very fast track to sort out revenue, design, financing, the contract, management, and schedule problems. Moreover, the agency has not yet replaced executive director Joel Horn, who quit in July. Nickels is bulling ahead in part because he and local business leaders fear public anger over the monorail fiasco will shape opinion about other transportation projects, giving ammo to the enemies of a new gas tax that will help fund replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 floating bridge. (See “‘Queen Christine’ and the Tax Revolt“)

Second, Nickels senses that public opinion has turned. A poll conducted for the Seattle Downtown Association by respected political pollster Peter Hart revealed that in transit-embracing and tax-friendly Seattle, only 20 percent of voters named the monorail as a top priority, 60 percent expressed negative feelings toward it, and 63 percent said they had little or no confidence in the board overseeing it. Fifty-six percent said they would likely vote against the project, even if it’s revamped. Hart said the numbers showed that a monorail ballot measure would face an “exceptionally uphill fight” and that the voters “want to cut their losses.”

Third, the public officials who have cowered as the People’s Boondoggle has chugged along now hope to use Nickels’ move as cover. Instead of killing the monorail themselves, they can let Nickels— certain of re-election—take the heat. In conversations we had with City Council candidates last week, they were beginning to speak of the monorail in the past tense, even before any ballot measure had been crafted, let alone voted on. What they were saying, in effect, was, “There’s no need for me to stand up and kill the monorail because it is already dead.”

But it ain’t dead. For one thing, Nickels can’t force the independent monorail board to do anything. He and the City Council can halt the project, but he can’t prevent it from collecting taxes, spending money, or plotting its eventual resuscitation. The monorail board has the authority to kill the project, but it is stacked with true believers. The Legislature could vote SMP out of existence, but lawmakers representing Seattle are divided. The public could kill it at the polls, but only if the project offers up a live-or-die ballot proposition. The board is unlikely to do that, and the “recall” provision sets a high bar.

The two incumbent elected board members, Cleve Stockmeyer and Cindi Laws, who are running for re-election, told the Seattle Weekly editorial board on Monday, Aug. 15, that they stand ready to “take on” Greg Nickels if he tries to force their hand (See “‘Joel Horn Lied to Us‘”). Stockmeyer believes that current negative opinion about the monorail is “mob hysteria” and that the project’s sole bidder, Cascadia Monorail, will shortly release poll results showing that a majority of Seattleites would support a modified project. Laws claims she’s not even sure that Nickels is trying to kill the project, suggesting that he and Machiavellian Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis are simply delivering a wake-up call.

Is it possible to wake up this comatose patient? I don’t think so.

Although Nickels is ratcheting up the pressure, it’s not enough. It’s time for him and other Seattle leaders to realize that no one else is going to do the dirty deed. It’s time for Nickels, the City Council, Seattle legislators, and the voters to stop kissing the monorail to death. It’s time to use the “brave man’s” sword and be done with it.