Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Seattle: Pull plug on monorail

It's time to pull plug on monorail See the comments for the entire article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's time to pull plug on monorail


Despite America's constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, our response to setbacks from baseball losing streaks to imploding public projects is to demand that heads roll.

The July Fourth holiday served up not only barbecued ribs, but heads on a platter -- those of monorail Executive Director Joel Horn and board Chairman Tom Weeks.

The resignations pare back a problem of incredulity -- remember Horn's grasping defenses of the now-abandoned 50-year financing plan? -- but in no way restore credibility.

My sense is that the Seattle Monorail Project has entered a lengthy, costly death spiral.

It's time to show mercy on Seattle's squeezed middle-class taxpayers. Let's pull the plug on this exercise of duplicity and waste.

The agency has managed already to pile up a $100 million debt, with what to show for it? It is chugging along at $4 million a month. Interesting to see will be cost figures on the spasm of advertising churned out to defend the discredited financing plan.

Vice Chairwoman Kristina Hill vowed yesterday that the monorail board will "act decisively" and delivered a classic "what, me worry?" line: "I've seem major ups and downs for the project before."

Such thinking reminds me of a World War I dispatch by Sir Douglas Haig, written almost exactly 89 years ago, after the British army under his command lost nearly 60,000 men on the first day of the Somme offensive.

"Casualties intolerable, progress negligible, but press on!"

The monorail board has demonstrated a Haig-like tendency to blunder forward. It does not portend well for the agency rising above it all.

The project's directors have applied no break on the agency's spending. Indeed, in December, they showered Horn with praise and upped his salary to $187,157 a year.

The board has known since 2003 that motor vehicle excise tax revenue was running 30 percent short of expectations. The shortfall hung over the project without being addressed.

The board has applied no critical analysis to other pillars of financing, such as the projections of people riding the monorail and income to be received from the farebox.

On the outside looking in, it appears that three people -- Joel Horn, Tom Weeks and Kristina Hill -- have run the Seattle Monorail Project.

They have preached openness but run an insular operation with no tolerance whatever for criticism.

The board ignored cautionary warnings from such level-headed folks as state Treasurer Mike Murphy, state Auditor Brian Sontag and the Seattle Municipal League.

Indeed, the monorail board has exercised far less critical oversight than did directors of the Washington Public Power Supply System 25 years ago. At least, too late as it turned out, WPPSS sacked an old-boy managing director under whom costs spiraled and construction sites descended into chaos.

Can we trust monorail directors to go back to the drawing board and come up with a viable finance plan?

Sadly, there seems no shortage of would-be Kool-Aid drinkers.

It's "time for all of us to all work together to make the monorail a reality," Marianne Bichsel, the spokeswoman for Mayor Greg Nickels, said as the resignations were announced.

The resignations were a "necessary first step" toward building support for a new financing plan, my newspaper opined in an editorial praising the departed Horn and Weeks.

"Now we can switch the debate back to the monorail as a viable transit option," City Councilman Nick Licata said.


The crisis with the Seattle Monorail Project has almost nothing to do with Horn's personality.

It has everything to do with underestimated revenue projections and sweeping assumptions that Metro's buses would make a beeline for monorail terminals.

In everything from open-air stations to sheer bulk, the monorail has deviated from what was promised Emerald City voters three years ago.

The Seattle Monorail Project may ask citizens for a higher vehicle excise tax, or a scaled back monorail.

Just try it. Voter reaction would likely shoot down not only the Seattle Monorail Project, but every major transportation upgrade planned for the Puget Sound region.

About 10 days ago, I received an e-mail from Portland-based pollster Tim Hibbitts, probably the region's best spotter of opinion trends.

"To be blunt," he wrote, "I do not think that the average bureaucrat has any idea of the financial strain that is on the average middle-class family today in cities like Seattle and (Portland).

"We are picking up an increasing resistance and resentment toward the tax and spend crowd that is beginning to come even from those whose politics is distinctly on the liberal side.

"I am not sure where this will go as it presents two disparate avenues. Most of these squeezed middle-class liberals believe in transportation and good schools and are not averse to paying for them. But that attitude is running headfirst into the squeeze they feel about their own finances."

If talk show hosts have their way, the state will vote in November on whether to repeal the Legislature's recently enacted three-year, 9.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase.

Central Puget Sound-area counties will likely face, in the next couple of years, a regional transportation "package" asking them to pay tolls and higher taxes to fix long-standing bottlenecks.

Why should we eat the broccoli if we are simultaneously being told to drink the Kool-Aid?
P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or