The Monofail

Built or killed, the monorail will be with us forever.

The Seattle Monorail Project teeters on the brink of collapse. The long- negotiated plan is discredited; the financing options are a nonstarter; the chief proponents, Executive Director Joel Horn and SMP board Chair Tom Weeks, have resigned in disgrace—exposed as the premier flim-flam men of River City on the Sound.

The best SMP has been able to do, despite Herculean efforts, is offer a single-bidder project scaled back, bulked up, $400 million over budget, years late, and based on an already onerous tax that is insufficient. We faced the prospect of paying, when all the borrowing was done, more than $11 billion for a $2 billion system. That was the downplayed official estimate. A more realistic projection would put the cost at more than $14 billion. None of that included the operating expenses of a train that, like every other transit system in the country, is unlikely to ever pay its own way.

SMP has turned a populist dream into a giant turd in Seattle's punch bowl.

Not everyone sees it that way. As we speak, people are mobilizing to save the new monorail. They are fighting among themselves. A Kool-Aid hangover is wicked, and the recriminations are spilling out on the bulletin boards and e-mail lists run by the faithful. Some support a revote. Others demand a rebid. Others suggest fixes, minor and major: Raise the motor-vehicle excise tax to eliminate the need for high-interest bonds, or reshuffle the elected and appointed monorail board.

And some, like recently departed Weeks and Horn, seem to be in deep denial that there is anything wrong with the rejected financing plan. They see themselves as the victims of lies and spin of monorail opponents who have exaggerated problems. By the ever-optimistic monorail dreamer's usual logic, this disastrous plan is the best of all possible plans. The dream is within reach and they see SMP's troubles as merely a public relations problem.

And that's been the problem with monorail leadership all along: an inability to distinguish engineering from spin, public policy from flackery. This project of steel and concrete has been built by top management and its enablers on the SMP board on a foundation of hot air. And they've been rewarded for it.

No wonder Horn says he went into the Fourth of July weekend intending to stay on. No wonder Tom Weeks has been surprised by the near-universal opposition to the plan. After months of feeding us bullshit, why wouldn't they believe Seattleites would swallow the last big dose? The monorail board seems stunned by the turn of events, clueless about public outrage and clueless about fundamentals of the project. They are a group that has reveled in ignorance and rewarded the men who've kept them in the dark. The only mass transit they should be involved in is a mass resignation. It is unfair for Horn and Weeks to take the fall for the whole gang.

The monorail could be saved, but it would take some doing on the part of true believers: a plan and budget for a city- or regionwide, publicly owned-and-operated system; a robust design for truly rapid transit (maglev?); a longer, more realistic time frame; a new and sound tax proposal; a revamped board and oversight, and perhaps a merger with an existing transit agency; adjustments to the route (like ditching the insane shortcut through Seattle Center); a budget that includes ample contingency and mitigation money; and a way to preserve and incorporate the current (and historic) Alweg line into the system. Such a plan would also have to be judged in light of the city's other pressing needs, but if it had all of the above, proponents might be able to make a reasonable case for a $14 billion (or more) monorail project. Despite what some are saying, the problems with SMP and the Green Line can't be fixed with a rebid and a sharpened pencil, let alone a board that's asleep at the switch.

The more sensible solution, though, is to close up shop. Now. Let this be a $100 million–$200 million lesson, instead of a multibillion-dollar folly.

Realized or not, the monorail will be one of those moments that define the city. If the project gets back on track, it will transform Seattle culture and politics forever. Whether a success or a boondoggle, the impact will be felt for generations—like the regrading of Denny Hill or the digging of the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

If the monorail project crashes and burns, that impact, too, will be felt for years to come. This moment will be remembered either as a time when the city came to its senses or missed a New York–Alki opportunity to catapult Seattle to a higher level. The Green Line could go down in civic history as one of the great might-have-beens, like the voter-rejected Bogue Plan that was to remake downtown, or the R.H. Thomson Expressway's ramps to nowhere.

Despite the quirky, populist origins and impetus of the monorail movement, both friends and foes admit the vision's power. And both reserve the right to say, "I told you so."

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