It's the new Seattle monorail that voters seemed to have ordered: Sleek, relatively unobtrusive, and on budget at $1.35 billion. Its lighter weight would mean smaller columns and guideways, more energy efficiency, and lower operating costs. It wouldn't require eliminating a lane of traffic on Second Avenue. Its cars would be built in Seattle. It would feature stations with low neighborhood profiles and turn the historic Times Square building into a grand, central depot. It wouldn't require removal of such buildings as the Federal Reserve Bank on Second Avenue near the Federal Building or complete elimination of such businesses as the Fishing Vessels Owners boatyard at Interbay. And except for one 20-block sprint in Crown Hill, its tracks would be double railed.
Next Stop: Podunk, Wash.
The legislative proposal to extend the Seattle monorail excise tax possibly into the middle of the century was not, it turns out, officially blessed by the Seattle Monorail Project's nine-member executive board. The legislation, which got its first hearing in Olympia Feb. 1, was portrayed to the board by monorail staffers as a "housekeeping" measure, and that understatement has riled at least one board member.
"To ask 147 legislators to approve something SMP's board has not even vetted is an indication of staff completely out of control," member Cindi Laws tells Seattle Weekly. "The law change could cost taxpayers an additional 10 years or more [in vehicle excise taxes], potentially harming Seattle's ability to fund future lines of the monorail." Voters in 2002 approved planning for four other monorail lines in addition to the starter route, the Green Line from Crown Hill to West Seattle. That some board members "think this is just ducky is an even bigger problem," Laws adds.
Laws, one of only two elected members, raised the issue at the Feb. 2 board meeting. Referring apparently to small-town legislators, she complained, "People in Podunk, Wash., have a bigger opportunity to influence this legislation than the members of this board do, and that is tragic."
SMP Deputy Director Anne Levinson explained that the measure was intended only to gain approval of a "financing tool." The bill, she said, includes a plan to re-establish a statute under which vehicles are depreciated to determine the 1.4 percent licensing tax. The agency is currently collecting the tax, even though no such valuation law exists. Levinson reassured board members that any extension of the taxing years would be fully aired and need final approval by the board.
But if it is given authority to collect the tax for 50 years or more, it's not hard to imagine the financially troubled agency going for it. Board member Sue Secker agrees with Laws, saying, "I was taken aback as well to learn of it [the extension] in the paper." State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, an ex officio member of the board who also sits on a legislative rules committee that will hear the issue in Olympia, said SMP bylaws should be amended, requiring staff to keep the board fully apprised of the legislative agenda.
Cleve Stockmeyer, the other elected member, contended that extending the tax "has always been discussed in public" and that he and other members were "briefed" on the legislation. (Laws said she was not.) Member Richard Stevenson said he was adequately informed in advance, and added, looking toward Laws, that "coming from Eastern Washington, I assume the reference to Podunk is a compliment."
However, there's a catch: This monorail plan is being offered to the Seattle Monorail Project, but it's not the one being considered. This version is the ballyhooed proposal of Team Monorail, the design/build/operate consortium headed by Bombardier Transportation of Montreal which last year dropped out of the bidding for Seattle's proposed new Green Line. Now that talks with sole bidder Cascadia Monorail are stalling over what insiders say is a $1.5 billion bid that has to be pared of $150 million worth of bells and whistles, Team Monorail is trying to get back into the race.
Officials familiar with the process say the Seattle Monorail Project's request for proposals last year was belatedly fashioned to favor Cascadia in the belief that TM wouldn't be able to muster an offer due to a contract liability requirement. Two weeks before deadline, monorail officials changed the specifications on station length and emergency walkways. Coupled with the liability issue, TM had no choice but to withdraw, it said. While boosting Cascadia, a consortium headed by Washington Group International, Fluor, and Hitachi, that left the tax-supported monorail agency with less leverage in bid negotiations.
Team Monorail says that never should have happened, and in new documents presented to the monorail project, TM has resubmitted a plan to reopen the process. At the very least, the consortium's attempt strengthens the monorail's hand in talks with Cascadia. But TM says its revised liability proposal "meets and exceeds" SMP's requirements, and its designs are superior to Cascadia's. In a letter to the monorail, TM Vice President Denis Bouvette says, "We believe that the voters and residents of Seattle will welcome a competitive process, and that SMP, as a responsible, transparent public entity with the best interests of the entire Seattle community, will as well." Adds consultant Blair Butterworth, a spokesperson for TM: "This is the monorail Seattle wanted. If we're allowed to bid, we'll win."
Seattle monorail and Cascadia officials say they are legally prevented from talking about the possible re-involvement of TM while they're in negotiations, now in their sixth month. But monorail Executive Director Joel Horn says, "If we can't reach an agreement, we [monorail officials] will meet to discuss it, and we could decide to put it out for new proposals." TM's Butterworth says, "It's our understanding that the monorail can do whatever it wants, including stopping the talks right now and asking us to submit a bid. We think they'd want to consider a less expensive offer that gives voters what they asked for."
Nagging at TM's renewed Seattle offer are recent breakdowns of the Las Vegas Monorail, which Bombardier built. The $654 million, 4.2-mile Vegas line re-opened at Christmas after a 107-day shutdown due to mechanical problems, wounding both its image and revenue (about $9 million in fare-box losses). Opening-day delays cost Bombardier almost $3 million, and when the line was operating, metal parts fell from the trains three times. Butterworth says that's the way complicated new transportation systems work—or don't work. "Bombardier fixed the problems, paid a fine, and the trains are sailing along again," he says. "The thing is, something is always going to go wrong. You even plan for it."
Besides the protracted bid discussions, Seattle monorail officials have found new problems with their original funding plan, putting pressure on the agency in light of a requirement it pass a City Hall financial review before permits are issued. Voters in 2002 narrowly approved a $1.75 billion budget for the project, which would be financed solely by an excise tax on Seattle vehicle licenses over two or three decades. The agency later discovered its tax revenue was overestimated by $150 million and began cutting back on plans and other costs. Jonathan Buchter, monorail project finance director, recently told legislators in Olympia that the agency now wants to extend its tax collection to as many as 50 years, possibly beyond—a critical need the agency did not reveal before the November election to "recall" the monorail plan and start anew. Extending the tax, some displeased legislators noted, could add $1 billion to financial and other taxpayer costs.
While Cascadia's current bid offer and concepts remain secret, TM has just released a proposal outline and an animated video on its Web site, TeamMonorail.com. It's the first time Seattle has had a good look at an actual bid design for the 13.7-mile Green Line. The concepts show a route overview, streamlined tracks, aerodynamic cars, and the flagship station at Fifth Avenue and Stewart Street, integrated into Times Square. A Madison Street station—unlikely under the Cascadia plan under consideration because of federal reluctance to decide the fate of the Federal Reserve building—would be built without razing the government structure, TM says.
A scene along Second Avenue shows how, contrary to Cascadia's plans, a less-intrusive guideway would preserve existing vehicle and bicycle lanes. A dramatic bridge is proposed for spanning the Lake Washington Ship Canal between Interbay and Ballard, which would also skirt part of the 1919 boatyard Marine Ways. The monorail recently began condemnation action to seize the property. "With Cascadia's design, both dry docks appear to be lost," says Butterworth. "So even if the company moves or closes down, with our design, the Port [of Seattle, which owns the property,] has at least a one dry dock facility it can lease."
If nothing else, Butterworth adds, TM's comeback attempt will aid taxpayers. "If the agency has a dog of a bid, they can leverage it by saying this other team is out there—maybe we'll start over. Of course, we think starting over is the best deal of all."