A $2.1 Billion Monorail

A watchdog group estimates the actual cost of what had been touted as a $1.6 billion deal.

It made headlines but it wasn't necessarily news. The Seattle Monorail Project and its bidder, Cascadia Monorail, announced Friday, June 3, that they "completed negotiations," a month after announcing they were "continuing negotiations." They have yet to use the word "agreement." In a few more weeks, final contracts might be produced for the 13.7-mile, $1.6 billion project. But the plan still must get monorail board approval, pass City Hall reviews, and be tested at public hearings. Any agreements and costs will also evolve throughout construction of the "experiment," as SMP calls it.

Indeed, a watchdog group, OnTrack, now says that based on SMP statements and its own estimates, the monorail's current projected costs already exceed $2 billion, putting the project in the hole without breaking ground. Besides the $1.6 billion-plus basic cost, add $200 million needed for reserves, $150 million in agency operation costs, $100 million in existing debt, an estimated $50 million for utility relocation, and $25 million to initially operate trains. That doesn't include "litigation, mitigation, and remediation of environmental hazards discovered during construction" that could add millions more, says an OnTrack analysis.

Monorail spokesperson Natasha Jones takes issue with some of OnTrack's conclusions and says, "These are issues we will be hashing out in the next few weeks." (Update: On Wednesday, June 8, SMP essentially confirmed the estimates of OnTrack.) SMP has insisted it has the money. It has further stripped down the system narrowly approved by voters three years back, dropping two more stations from the drawing board (at the top of Avalon Way in West Seattle and on Elliott Avenue West in lower Queen Anne). Along with "delayed" construction of stations at south Interbay and a downtown site on Second Avenue, that pares to 16 the original 20 possible stations—all of which, as now planned, will be more like shelters. Other downsizing, including less double-rail track, will add five minutes between planned train arrival times. SMP has also, finally if only casually, admitted its project is no longer on time, set to launch December 2010, a year later than promised.

As for funding, a nagging pattern has developed. In the seven months last year that SMP collected its full 1.4 percent monorail tax on Seattle car-license sales, it averaged $3.9 million monthly. For the first four months of 2005, the average take dropped to $3.6 million. That's less revenue, but, more importantly, SMP must increase its take by 6.1 percent every year to succeed. The agency says it's too early to detect a trend, but OnTrack notes that if licensing streams run low, the project could be stopped in its half-built tracks, leaving Seattle with a torn-up core and a choice of increasing taxes or aborting its dream—if not nightmarish—ride.


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