Credible Critic

Monorail planners dismiss questions raised by a structural engineer with a global reputation.

Millionaire structural engineer Jon Magnusson rolls out of bed one day last week, slips into a tailored suit and loafers, and drives off to his downtown Seattle office thinking how important it might be not to build one of his city's most monumental edifices, a colossal ode to transportation called the new Seattle monorail.

"I am the last one to say, gee, you know, let's not develop, let's not build," Magnusson, 50, says later in his office on the 32rd floor of the Rainier Tower. He is chair of the global engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates. Behind him, through a bank of windows, his hometown is spread out below in a watercolor rimmed by seaway and mountains. He is partial to unobstructed views. "But we really need to do what is right," he says. "I came to the conclusion that—one of the things my partner and I, Ron Klemencic, want our firm to be is a leader—that just because it's a controversial issue doesn't mean we shouldn't say something. Our firm will flourish regardless of what happens on this. We've done work in 43 states and 35 countries that know nothing about the Seattle monorail. And even if some of our clients in town get upset with us, I at least hope they respect us for our integrity on the issue."

So that Thursday morning, May 20, Magnusson sets up a display of exhibits in his conference room—monorail photos, maps, and documents, and a tiny train set that went from two tracks to one—then calls in the press. He poses questions that are, by implication, blunt criticisms of a troubled project: Is the monorail being laid out properly in anticipation of expanding it citywide? Will the single-track design of portions of the route serve future ridership growth? And is there a possibility the West Seattle Bridge might cave under the added weight of a monorail track if struck by an earthquake?

The public is being misled about the design and appearance of the city's planned ride in the sky, he says. He felt compelled to pipe up. "The voters have spoken," Magnusson observes, "but the voters have not [since] had the full picture."

"My intent is not to kill" the monorail, Magnusson says, "unless it doesn't pass muster." In his long view, he sees not just a train but a wall. "The monorail project is in danger of becoming our generation's Alaskan Way Viaduct," he said of the crumbling waterfront barrier and eyesore, "one that will have to be torn down by our children."

Within hours, his words are being knocked down by Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) officials. His criticisms also provoke an angry response from a monorail construction team official, who calls Magnusson "unprofessional." And over the weekend, monorail board members Tom Weeks and Kristina Hill added another insult: liar. "To leave the public with the impression that the monorail is not being thoughtfully planned, designed and constructed is doing a real disservice to the public, to the SMP staff and to the two international teams bidding on the project . . . ," they said in a statement. "No level of concern about this project can justify lying to the public through the media as Mr. Magnusson has done."

Magnusson, the first authoritative engineer to speak out against the project, says he isn't waiting around for the Seattle Monorail Project 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 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 substantial 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.

"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." 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 on the 13.7-mile Green Line from Crown Hill to West Seattle—the first of several lines planned to crisscross the city. Two consortiums, Cascadia Monorail Co. and the recently regrouped Team Monorail, are expected to submit bids. Magnusson says his firm was involved—though without a contract—in "a small part of the project" as a Team Monorail structural engineer for the stations, as a subconsultant.

SMP and Team Monorail, in a return volley of e-mails, questioned Magnusson's claims. Tom Stone of Team Monorail said in an e-mail 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 subconsultant, but, "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 . . . 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 and denies he is part of any of the supporting or dissenting factions. By not participating in the Green Line, 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."

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow