Seattle's embattled monorail project got a boost from two U.S. defense contractors this week, one of which specializes in both building mass transit and disposing of weapons of mass destruction. Engineering and construction giants Washington Group International (WGI) of Idaho and Fluor Corp. of California presented their weighty bid in hopes of building the first leg of a planned citywide monorail rapid-transit system. The two political and industrial heavyweights are both waste contractors at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington and hold $5 billion worth of Bush administration Iraq reconstruction contracts, which Democrats characterize as war profiteering.
"Well," said WGI's senior vice president, Six Christian Silva, having a glass of wine at a crowded post-bid party Monday, Aug. 16, at the Edgewater Hotel, "if rebuilding a war-torn country is war profiteering, that's an odd way of putting it. We've been helping rebuild Afghanistan, for example, for four decades."
WGI and Fluor head the private consortium Cascadia Monorail, which this week submitted the sole bid to build and operate the planned Green Line monorail from Crown Hill to West Seattle. It's expected to cost about $1.4 billion, "about half what it's costing us to put light rail through Seattle," says pro-monorail spokesperson Peter Sherwin. Fluor, which last week was fined a record $935,000 by the Department of Energy for safety violations at Hanford, and WGI, which emerged from bankruptcy just two years ago, promised a nervous Seattle that it would have its 13.7-mile monorail starter line by 2009.
"There is no better project for Seattle right now than this monorail," said Fluor's executive sales director, Jeff Fielder, joining Silva on the Edgewater's balcony for the quiet semicelebration. "The economic benefits and notoriety of building the biggest monorail commuter line in North America will make this great city a poster child for innovation."
For monorail fans, the bid opening was an emotional goose. A monorail city since the 1960s, Seattle in recent days appeared destined to go from potentially two sky trains to none. The 1962 World's Fair train remained derailed following a May fire, and the new system was jarred by the withdrawal of one of its two certified bidding groups, Team Monorail, headed by Bombardier of Montreal. The new line was also facing a recall vote that could have sent the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) back to scratch after two years. But in the course of just over a week:
A court ruled that Monorail Recall's effort violated state law and waved its initiative off the November ballot—an appeal is promised.
Officials said the old monorail might resume service soon.
A city hearing examiner shot down a challenge to the monorail environmental impact statement.
And monorail officials said one bidder was all that's needed to keep the new train on its development schedule.
Wrapping it all up with one big Emerald City ribbon, the new monorail might be built in part by a company that built the first Seattle monorail, and the new train's technology is a direct descendant of the world's fair train.
Silva, Fielder, and monorail officials were closemouthed about specifics contained in more than 100,000 pages of bid documents delivered to SMP headquarters, although some details might be released next month after an initial review. Despite its milestone implications, the new Seattle monorail bid might not be the last. "Who knows what they'll do?" says Fielder. "They could rebid the whole project. If that happens, we'd be at a disadvantage." Said Silva: "It would be unfair if details of our proposal were released publicly. This is still a competitive situation." In fact, the group that dropped out, Team Monorail, says it is still prepared to submit a bid if asked. SMP officials had especially liked Bombardier/Team Monorail's sleeker train designs. But Bombardier also has financial problems and is a partner in a recently completed New Jersey light-rail line that came in over schedule (a year) and over budget (by at least 30 percent). The New Jersey contract also raised suspicions among Seattle monorail opponents over the supposed built-in guarantees of SMP's design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) bid invitation. Officials say the winner-take-all DBOM process means any cost overruns will be borne by the contractor, not Seattle taxpayers. But Bombardier and its New Jersey consortium partners argue the DBOM is meaningless when it comes to capping costs and are now suing New Jersey taxpayers to avoid paying $130 million in overruns.
So who are Seattle's likely second monorail builders? And will their corporate records matter in a liberal city sometimes touchy about political correctness? Even WGI and Fluor concede their histories, earnings, and global operations figure directly into the Seattle monorail bid. "Washington Group and Fluor provide integrated engineering, construction, operations, and maintenance solutions worldwide. Their combined revenues in 2002 exceeded $13.7 billion," Cascadia says in its sales pitches. They are "[c]ompanies with the balance sheets to stand behind contractual obligations and to provide confidence to the citizens of Seattle. . . . " Said Silva: "I think we have a very good corporate record." Added Fielder, who has traveled the globe for Fluor: "I grew up in the Yakima Valley, and I care about this region. We understand what it means to be a good corporate citizen."
If awarded the SMP job this fall, Fluor Enterprises—Fluor's division competing for the monorail—and WGI will lead the construction and engineering, with the trains to be designed and built by Hitachi of Japan. Hitachi's monorail technology will actually be an advanced version of the Alweg German design (developed by Axel Wenner-Gren, a Nazi sympathizer, for what that's worth) used to operate Seattle's original monorail. Hitachi, in fact, licensed the technology in 1962 after seeing the trains perform on the first dual-rail system.
Fluor, with 30,000 employees in 25 countries, and WGI, with 27,000 workers in 30 countries, formed Cascadia Monorail Company LLC to go after the Seattle job, bringing in Hitachi, Mitsui USA, and HDR Engineering as major partners. The team also includes Howard S. Wright Construction of Seattle—the builder of Seattle's first monorail.
WGI is based in Boise and chaired by its founder, Montana billionaire industrialist Dennis Washington. Once called Washington Construction Group, the company in 1996 acquired the legendary Morrison Knudsen construction company, which helped build the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam but fell into bankruptcy in 1995. A renamed WGI itself filed for bankruptcy in 2001 after the acquisition of Raytheon's construction and engineering unit went sour, leaving a $2.5 billion hole. WGI emerged from Chapter 11 in 2002 and has been sailing along financially since, the company says. Among its services are homeland security and military base operations and closures. WGI, which partners with Fluor in the Hanford cleanup and waste transfer, is destroying such weapons of mass destruction as Soviet missiles in Ukraine and chemical stores in the U.S. It has mining operations in Europe and South America, has engineered a power plant in the Philippines, and is building highways and railways—including light-rail systems—in New Jersey and California. The company says it takes on "many of the world's most daunting challenges." Says veep Silva: "WGI and Fluor are two of maybe just four corporations in the world capable of building a major monorail."
Both private corporations earn major federal taxpayer dollars. WGI reaped almost $2 billion the past 13 years from U.S. government contracts and Fluor has received about $8.5 billion, including work on the reconstruction of Kuwait after Gulf War I. WGI's new reconstruction work in Iraq, restoring infrastructure, could be worth another $3.1 billion. Fluor's deal in Iraq is worth up to $2.5 billion. Some of the work is directly related to full recovery of Iraq's oil export system, a project overseen for the U.S. by Bush appointee and fellow Texas oilman Philip J. Carroll Jr., Fluor's former CEO. He holds $34 million in Fluor stock and receives retirement benefits and bonuses from Fluor. (He told the Los Angeles Times he "could" be accused of a conflict of interest.) Fluor won its Iraq work only months after Suzanne Woolsey, wife of former CIA director and war advocate James Woolsey, joined Fluor's board of directors.
Fluor was forced to give back some of its government earnings. The Project on Government Oversight, a D.C. watchdog, says Fluor has been assessed $70 million in penalties and settlements in recent years for misconduct or alleged misconduct, as claimed in civil cases and by government agencies.
Fluor's businesses include telecommunications, oil and gas production, and waste cleanup. Among Fluor's major U.S. contracts is a deal worth up to $5 billion for cleaning up and transferring nuke waste at Hanford. Last Thursday, Fluor's Hanford division paid the U.S. $935,000 for safety violations, the biggest fine ever against a Hanford contractor. In 1999, Fluor was fined $330,000 for safety violations. Fluor Hanford is involved in at least eight federal court civil lawsuits, including one over a 1997 explosion and another involving a fatal fire in 2000 at Hanford.
The two would-be monorail builders have also engineered considerable access to politicians, spending millions on contributions and lobbying. WGI has given more than $750,000 in federal-election political contributions from 1999 to 2002, and Fluor gave almost $490,000, according to the Center for Public Integrity and other sources. In both cases, about 60 percent of the giving went to the GOP.
Locally, WGI gave $1,900 to Seattle City Council candidates in 2003, and Silva donated $1,000 to the 2002 pro-monorail campaign. It has been a long battle, Silva said Monday, and it's not over. "But 20 years from now, when the monorail is carrying people from one end of town to the next over all that stalled traffic, somebody might even thank us."