State Poised for Second Monorail Audit

Olympia's new authority to conduct performance audits is about to kick in, and it means more scrutiny for the Seattle Monorail Project.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag says his review of the Seattle Monorail Project is off to a good start. The monorail staff is cooperative, he says, and the audit is being fast-tracked, with completion possible by the end of August and a report shortly thereafter. The audit will look at how accurately the stalled project's finances have been represented, how well it has followed state public disclosure laws, the fairness of the bidding process, and possible conflicts of interest, among other issues. (See "Joel Horn's Blank Check.")

But this initial review might not be the end of it. Speaking to a meeting of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition last Saturday, July 9, Sonntag said he will also do a performance audit of SMP when he has the power to do so. A performance audit is a new tool about to be added to the auditor's arsenal. Such audits go beyond determining whether projects can add or subtract properly—they determine whether they're actually an effective use of public money. Could the monorail hope to survive a real cost-benefit analysis? Sonntag would like to know.

The auditor's hand has been strengthened by two laws passed during the last legislative session. The first gives the auditor limited authority to conduct performance audits of state projects using outside contractors—a first in Washington, which previously was the only state to ban performance audits. The law kicks in later this month. Meanwhile, Sonntag points out that the recently passed transportation bill, which hikes the gas tax, includes a provision requiring performance audits of state transportation projects. Under that provision, the auditor could—and would—do a more comprehensive analysis of the monorail.

In November, the voters could also dramatically expand Sonntag's powers. Tim Eyman's Initiative 900 will be on the ballot. It would allow the auditor to conduct performance audits of both state and local public agencies, but unlike the other two laws, it would provide millions of dollars in taxpayer money to pay for the audits. Sonntag won't formally endorse I-900, but he calls its provisions "reasonable" and thinks the voters will go for it.

If they do, and the monorail is still going, the state auditor and the staff of SMP are likely to become even better acquainted.

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