Engineer: Monorail Design Flawed

Project planners hit back, calling respected structural expert 'unprofessional.'

IS THE NEW Seattle monorail being properly planned to allow expansion of a citywide system? Will four miles of single-guideway track serve future ridership growth? And, for crying out loud, will or won't the West Seattle Bridge fall down under the added weight of a monorail track and train if struck by an earthquake?

Those are a few of the questions posed Thursday, May 20, by widely respected Seattle structural engineer Jon Magnusson, who thinks the public has been misled about the design and appearance of the city's planned ride in the sky—a claim that was denied by monorail officials, who were barred from Magnusson's press conference. The criticism also provoked an angry response from a monorail construction team official, who called Magnusson "unprofessional."

"My intent is not to kill" the monorail, Magnusson says, "unless it doesn't pass muster. If it doesn't work, why are we spending that kind of money on something that doesn't work?" To him, "The monorail project is in danger of becoming our generation's Alaskan Way Viaduct ... one that will have to be torn down by our children."

Magnusson, the first authoritative engineer to speak out against the project, says he isn't waiting around for the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) or City Hall to come up with answers to the issues he's raised. He has formed his own task force of private engineers, including those from his Seattle-based structural engineering firm, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, to review what he calls the monorail's potential structural and planning weak spots and issue a report, in two weeks.

Eric Wilson, spokesperson for the Seattle Monorail Project says the questions raised by Magnusson aren't necessarily new or unanswered. "There was nothing substantially apparently shared at [Magnusson's] press conference that, to the best of our knowledge, we haven't discussed and gone over with the public at community meetings." SMP sent a few representatives to the press conference to hear the claims firsthand but were barred entry by Magnusson's staff, Wilson says.

"Jon is a respected member of the engineering community," Wilson adds. "But we also have some of the best people anywhere who do transit systems. … We feel real good about the team we have assembled." The expansion planning, single-track sections, and bridge load are issues all resolved in environmental impact statements and other planning documents, he says.

THE $1.6 BILLION monorail project is expected to open its construction bids June 15. The idea is to break ground this winter and start building a 13.7-mile Green Line from Crown Hill to West Seattle—the first of several monorail lines planned to crisscross the city. Two consortiums, Cascadia Monorail Co. and the recently re-grouped Team Monorail, are expected to submit bids.

Magnusson says his firm was involved—though without a contract—in some of the original planning last year and officially dropped off Team Monorail last month. Team Monorail has said, perhaps correctly, he was never a member of their team, and Magnusson said, also likely correctly, he was. There were no signed contracts. But according to e-mail between Team Monorail and Magnusson and other documents Magnusson read aloud at the press conference, he and his firm were involved in "a small part of the project" as structural engineer for the monorail stations as a sub-consultant.

SMP AND TEAM MONORAIL, in a return volley of e-mails released Thursday, questioned Magnusson's claims and motives. As Tom Stone of Team Monorail said in an early-Thursday message to Magnusson: "As I have told the media, MKA was never on the team and never did any work for the team." There had been discussion of the firm possibly serving as a sub-consultant, but "No formal agreement was ever reached, no paper exchanged hands. The only evidence of any discussions is that because Chris and you apparently attended an initial meeting, Granite [Construction] took your business cards and put you on an initial contact list. You cannot 'resign' from a team that you were never a part of. Further, I consider it incredibly unprofessional to have done this [speaking out] without even having the professional courtesy, let alone not having taken the time, to come and talk with us first about whatever concerns you have."

As "only an engineer," Magnusson says he didn't fully appreciate how wild the monorail's political terrain was until word leaked of his planned press conference, where the first questions put to him were about his motivation. Magnusson denies he is part of any of the supporting or dissenting factions and has contributed money to neither side. (His firm is involved in the new Washington Mutual building on Second Avenue, which would be affected by the monorail's alignment, but he says his firm's portion of that work is completed.) By dropping out of the Green Line project, his company lost a potential multimillion-dollar contract, Magnusson claims. "From a business standpoint, we'd be a lot better off shutting up," Magnusson says. But, at the very least, his critical review might mean "we'll end up with a much better monorail project."

Right now, it's a project that has moved too far too fast, leaving design flaws in its wake, he says. "You need to know what you're buying before you sign that contract," says Magnusson, who has honchoed more than $2.5 billion in construction projects and whose firm has projects in 43 states and 35 countries.

THE MONORAIL'S already-issued request for bid proposals, which Magnusson's task force will study in more detail, does not include all facets of the project, Magnusson says. Monorail officials have said they will work out the fine details after a bid is accepted.

Magnusson called that naive and "a fantasy." The DBOM—design, build, operate, and maintain—bids have to be specific, or you don't get what you need, he says. "It has to be in the RFP [request for proposals] or it will get value-engineered out, to use the terminology," Magnusson says.

His task force, whose report he will release to the public and city officials, will study the question of using 24-year-old seismic standards to gauge the quake worthiness of a West Seattle Bridge burdened by the monorail's added weight. Also, he wants to further explore the budget-cutting use of a single guideway on four miles of the otherwise dual-beam line, suspecting the single-track portions might handcuff expansion in later years and create even greater delays in times of train breakdowns.

Like many who question the project's deviations from the one narrowly approved by voters in 2002, Magnusson wants to know what, exactly, the line will look like—just how big are the guideways and those massive switches?

He feels SMP has been deceptive in its recent ad campaign that, among other things, depicted scenic, sunset-mountain-water views out the monorail's windows as it passed through town. "This is not the system being planned," he says. "Every second you'll get a flash of a view corridor" as the train moves along Second Avenue. "This is propaganda … it's not honest."

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