Papering It Over

Monorail planners deny there are problems and defend costly, uninformative advertising.

Facing a growing chorus of critics, more questioning from City Hall, and being forced to extend its bid deadline two months at the request of not-quite-ready-for-prime-time builders, the troubled Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) took the unusual step of issuing a white paper last week to clear up "misconceptions" about the future of its proposed 13.7-mile line. But the paper, titled "Setting the Record Straight," might pose a few misconceptions of its own.

In a loose Q&A format, SMP notes, for example, that "some say the monorail still has a 30 percent shortfall." To that, SMP says it "has addressed the financial issues caused by tax revenues coming in lower than expected last year. . . . As of 2004, available funds and expected costs to build the monorail are each projected to be about $1.6 billion. The final monorail Green Line route and station locations—developed after extensive analysis, planning and community input—provides what the voters asked for at a lower cost of construction than what was projected back in 2002. This improved financial picture is also due to the closing of vehicle registration loopholes and reductions in the projected cost of financing the project." (One loophole closing—imposing a felony on vehicle owners who evade the tax by not registering their real home addresses—has been suspended until November to work out state computer problems, costing SMP as much as $1 million in lost revenue.)

While the monorail has "addressed" its financial problems, the new measures are unproved, and there is, indeed, still a 30 percent shortfall. In its first 11 months of collecting from its only revenue source, a tax added to vehicles licensed in Seattle, SMP has generated $23.5 million. It had projected taking in at least $33 million in the same period. It hopes to more than double its current revenues starting this month. For the first year, the tax has been collected at a 0.85 percent rate; this week, that rate rose to 1.4 percent—or $140 for a $10,000 car. (Besides cars and trucks, also taxed are boat trailers, farm vehicles, and motor homes.)

The monorail's white paper came just days after Seattle structural engineer Jon Magnusson announced he was forming a task force to independently study what he considers possible flaws in SMP plans and designs. Magnusson says he was inspired to question design issues, including the use of a single track in places and the earthquake worthiness of the West Seattle Bridge (see "Credible Critic," May 26), after reading a letter issued by four former Seattle mayors, who worried about the project's effects on the downtown cityscape, and after contacting former Gov. Dan Evans, a monorail supporter. "I called him about four weeks ago and related my concerns," Magnusson says, "and he said, 'Well, tell me more,' and his only comment was, 'Just keep me posted.' He didn't say no," don't speak out. (Evans was among a pro-monorail coalition that last week filed two legal challenges to Initiative 83, the proposed monorail recall initiative, claiming the ballot title is inaccurate and fails to fully inform the public about the initiative's intent.)

Clearly irritated by his criticisms, monorail officials accused Magnusson of "lying to the public," and board officials Tom Weeks and Kristina Hill issued a statement noting that "Magnusson's firm worked with Matt Griffin to help with the engineering for the new Washington Mutual building on Second Avenue. Griffin is a leader of OnTrack (the primary group opposing the monorail) and, with other Second Avenue property owners, is currently involved in litigation against the Seattle Monorail Project. We can't help but wonder if this is the true motivation for Magnusson's publicity stunt."

Responds Magnusson: "Nobody has told me what to say, nobody told me how to say it, nobody is paying me anything." Tim Wulf, a leader of Monorail Recall, which is gathering signatures for an initiative that could force City Hall to block SMP's use of city rights of way, hails Magnusson's comments as "a huge shot in the arm for us" and says the monorail project is still not being square about its planning faults. "There has been a strong undercurrent with the monorail authority to sweep problems and issues under the rug," Wulf says.

SMP says, however, that its white paper is another example of how it has tried to convey plans to the public. In parti­cular, it cites the controversy over its now-curtailed multimillion-dollar advertising campaign.

"Some say: 'Money is being wasted by SMP on ads in newspapers, TV, and radio,'" says SMP. But "Seattleites told us that they prefer to learn about the monorail through daily newspapers (60 percent), TV (53 percent), radio (52 percent), and our Web site (51 percent). SMP ran three [versions of] TV ads, two radio ads and three newspaper ads, each of which contain many specific points of information such as where the monorail will go, how often it will run, how it's being designed to be good for the environment and more. . . . " These are elementary facts, of course, that anyone who has been paying attention the past two years has already learned from newspapers, TV, radio, and the Web—and at no cost to SMP, at least until the ad campaign. But the monorail, SMP says, "is intended to serve all Seattleites in a variety of ways and it is being paid for by people throughout Seattle—every person in Seattle deserves a chance to learn about their monorail."

The white paper is available at

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