The purpose of this newsletter is to provide
information, inspire involvement, and make things work
in this great city.
QUOTE AND DEEP THOUGHT
For seven years, people in Seattle have dreamed of a cost-effective, sleek, modern train crisscrossing the City. People were frustrated by how slow this area has been to develop mass transit. As a committed transit supporter, I shared that frustration.
As the Seattle Monorail Project slowly chipped away at that dream, however, I became increasingly alarmed at rising costs and declining performance. Over the last three years my questions have remained unanswered and my fears have increased.
Astonishingly, the current proposal is worse than any I had feared. I cannot, in good conscience, vote to approve a financial plan that will saddle Seattle taxpayers with an $11 billion burden, that will jeopardize the City's financial health, and that the State Treasurer and Auditor believe could harm the whole region's ability to finance many other projects.
I had imagined that the SMP would come up with a poorly designed, clunky system that would be within budget but would lead to neighborhood blight and never realize its promise of a system that would serve the whole city. Or, I thought, the SMP would come up with a better designed system, but one that was just not affordable.
I never dreamed that they would propose a system that combined the worst features of both scenarios: incredibly high costs and financial risks along with poor design.
A system that will take until 2050 to be paid off - even in the optimistic SMP scenario - will never have the financial wherewithal for expansion, killing the dream that began this quest.
With our region facing urgent priorities in replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the 520 Bridge, and with Sound Transit's light rail under construction with a realistic budget, but lacking the funds to complete the first phase to Northgate, we cannot afford to spend these kinds of sums on the project that SMP is now proposing.
It is time for an exit strategy. There are three possibilities:
- The SMP Board could vote to reject this contract. They could rebid -- with more than one competitor, there might be a more affordable contract. Or they could try to complete one leg (preferably the one from West Seattle to downtown, the easiest and most useful part of the route), in hopes that success with that would persuade the voters to vote more funding for the rest of the system.
- If the SMP Board does not do this, then the City Council could refuse to agree to the financial plan, thus denying SMP the right to use City streets. I believe that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the SMP to demonstrate that its financial plan is sufficiently prudent and risk-free to meet the Council's criteria. The question is not "can the system be built within the constraints of the financing proposed by SMP?" The question is, "SHOULD the system be built?" This is a policy question about the wisdom of saddling Seattle taxpayers for decades with a tax for a transportation system of limited utility. The alarms raised by state officials have been echoed by countless phone calls and almost 800 emails I have received, about 20 to 1 against the project. Almost half begin with: "I voted for the monorail x number of times, but I no longer support it," including a message from one of the three authors of the 2000 monorail initiative.
- If neither the SMP nor the Council acts to turn down this proposal, the State Legislature has the authority to disband or drastically modify the SMP.
None of these are the kind of choices that elected officials like to make. But it is time for us to face reality and cut our losses before they overwhelm our ability to carry out critical regional priorities.
At the annual meeting of the Transportation Choices Coalition, a Portland regional transportation board member spoke about their success in getting transit projects constructed. To the surprise of the audience, one thing he cited was the decision to scrap a proposed transit line after it became clear that it was not cost effective. It is a sign of maturity, he pointed out, for a committed transit advocate to be able to say no to a particular proposal when it doesn't pencil out.
People in Seattle have longed for better transit for years - and are impatient with our progress. But tying up our limited resources for 45 or more years - with enormous profits for the bond market, and great risks to our own fiscal health - for a single system of limited utility, is not progress. As the philosopher Frederic Nietzsche noted: "When you are face to face with an abyss, the only progressive step is backwards." It's time to regroup and seek a better way.
WHAT THEY PROMISED
A citywide monorail system, consisting of 5+ lines, beginning with the Green Line from Ballard to West Seattle.
A monorail with tall, elegant columns, quite unlike the old, clunky monorail on 5th Ave.
Neighborhood-specific station design. $2.3 million was spent on architectural design. Stations were envisioned to have cafes, newsstands and other amenities.
$1.75 billion in construction costs and an additional $2.5 billion in financing costs --$4 billion in total project costs.
Bonds lasting 25-30 years (documents projected that bonds could extend beyond 30 years but the campaign emphasized the lower figure).
The first segment opening in December 2007, completion in 2009.
Headways of 4 minutes downtown during peak hours and 8 minutes during off-peak hours.
WHAT THEY NOW PROPOSE
One Green Line that voters approved by 877 votes. Because the line will be so expensive for so long, voters are unlikely to approve additional lines. The Green Line parallels two already-existing north-south transit lines.
Columns that will be bigger than the current 5th Ave ones.
Open air, cookie-cutter stations with minor variations.
16 stations with the Avalon and Elliott and Mercer stations deferred until "ridership warrants their construction". The downtown station will be deferred until the SMP can acquire the property now held by the Federal Reserve. Without that station, will riders from West Seattle or Ballard take the monorail to Pioneer Square or Belltown and then board a bus or walk to downtown jobs?
$2.1 billion in construction costs and an additional $9 billion in financing cost, assuming the optimistic projection of 6% MVET growth. Total project costs will exceed $11 billion.
Bonds lasting as long as 48 years in the best-case scenario or 73 years or more in a more probable scenario.
No first segment opening; completion of the whole line now scheduled for 2010.
Headways of 8 minutes downtown during peak hours and 10 minutes off-peak. What will the impact be on ridership of the longer headway and reduced number of stations?
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"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."
"You have to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away and know when to run."
Citizen participation and engagement are critical for maintaining democracy -- fostering it is a key task of elected officials. It's my hope that this newsletter will inform you about issues, inspire you to get involved, and that together we can make things work better in this great city. Please send me your feedback, so we can keep things lively, interesting, and useful. And please forward it along to friends who might be interested. You can get more information or send me feedback through the City Council website at http://cityofseattle.net/council/
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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