Alice Wheeler

What do you think the death of the monorail means for future infrastructure projects in Seattle?

Seattle has just screwed itself in terms of getting big business to help with things.

Last week, the city council sent the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) a letter asking the agency not to sell off the property it bought for stations until the council can determine whether the city could use those properties for a future transit line. How did you feel when you got that letter?

When you read the letter the tone—it is so fucked. Blow us off for three months and them write us that letter? They refused to meet with us!

So basically, they said, ‘your station locations are great, your line is great, it’s really important that these specific station locations be preserved but we don’t like the project.”

Yes! Because it’s not them. …They’re not going to come up with anything cheaper that achieves the same objectives. … They can’t be as effective in terms of 6-minute service as the monorail would have been, because it won’t be grade-separated or it’ll be huge and expensive.

Can you put your finger on the moment when things started to fall apart?

Well, as you know, I’ve been doing this for years so this is a long way back. I remember when (former King County Council member) Lois North was on the board. She was the first chair for the [Elevated Transportation Company, predecessor to the SMP]. She stuck it out from February until September or October. She had gone around and talked to the elected officials—Ron Sims, Paul Schell, Ed Murray—and she came to the conclusion that there was no support for it in the establishment. She said, you will never get this built because the elected leadership us not going to allow it to be built. That is the moment that I look back to now and say, wow, why didn’t I pay attention? I was willing to dream for so long that it could happen. I didn’t think that was the fundamental issue. I was willing to believe that elected officials would support it if the people would support it… the attitude toward initiatives is that it’s the elected leadership that are the representatives of the people and they should be the ones to make political decisions, and therefore initiatives are all bad. You can’t build infrastructure by initiative.

In retrospect, maybe I would have resigned when Lois North left. You can’t build infrastructure by initiative. There is no infrastructure in the United States that has been built by petition – none!—and you have to ask yourself why. I think that maybe it’s because political leadership is really vanity leadership, not principled leadership.

Did you attempt to reach out to the political leadership of Seattle before the mayor pulled the city’s support for the agency on September 16?

Absolutely. Greg Nickels said to me, “When your project gets in trouble, you’ve got to go back to the people to solve your problem. We’re not going to help you. … That’s the part I don’t understand. There were so many ways he could have made it work and taken credit for it. Between June and September I would have taken any legal deal and I would have sold it to the board. I was not offered a deal of any kind. We talked to the city council as often as they would allow us. I met with Nick Licata and Jan Drago biweekly and then Peter Steinbrueck tried to come into it and help in mid-September … It took [the mayor’s office] until the end of July before we actually met. We had a very cordial lunch… Greg was pontificating. He was in his expansive, royal mode … Kevin [Phelps, the SMP’s financial consultant] asked Greg if he was willing to consider a new finance plan and he said he was. Otherwise Kevin wouldn’t’ have taken the job… I asked for a meeting in august to be able to show what we had. If they’d wanted to make a deal that’s what they would do. But I had to actually track the mayor down at a neighborhood meeting in Roosevelt to finally get to talk to him.

Then, the morning of his press conference… the very first thing that happens is we sit down and he says, “I have to tell you, I’ve decided to pull my support for the monorail. So there was never an opportunity to make a deal; there was never any kind of an olive branch from them. There were some chain jerks from [Deputy Mayor] Tim [Ceis] at various times, like they would accept a 5.5 percent [tax-growth rate, lower than the SMP’s earlier 6.1 percent estimate), But that was only for a 25 year borrowing term, and that’s building a monorail from Alaska junction to the bridge—maybe.

[Nickels] was never really on board. … He did express support for it. Even when the shit hit the fan with the $11 billion headline Greg was the most calm politician maybe that was just him crafting his decision it’s very Machiavellian over there so that would not surprise me… I don’t think he had really decided … he didn’t seem to have thought through yet what would happen if we had a better finance plan. I think it’s going to take a few weeks for us to all find out who they made the deal with.

I went to the first meetings with Ceis and I purposely acted dumber and more naïve than I actually felt. I told him everything. I called him every week and said, “Tim, here’s what’s going on,” at least for the first month, and then he fucked us with that [September 15] deadline thing and that was the end of that.

If [the mayor’s office] had said, “I will support this if you take the devil incarnate to be your interim executive director,” I would have said yes. I would have sold my soul. It would be the Nickels Green Line. I would have done anything to see it get built. Between June and September, I would have taken any legal deal and I would have sold it to the board. I was not offered a deal of any kind. There was never any kind of an olive branch from them. I’m an eight-year veteran of a citizen volunteer project and the message I got in the end was, we don’t want your help; we’ll solve this problem ourselves. I really felt the city government told us as citizens, fuck you – you’re on your own. I think that has a really chilling effect.

It seems to me that the battle over the monorail was always really a battle over who gets the MVET, and the mayor and Sound Transit wanted it for themselves.

It seems like what they want is an antagonistic relationship between themselves and their constituents who are activists, and I think that’s completely fucked up. … They accused me of being arrogant over and over again. I think that's the fundamental arrogance—to turn down the help of people who volunteer their time.

There was a cloud over the project being this citizen agency. ... The mayor and the city council are in bed together and the SMP is the third person in the bed, and they get upset: “Who is this third person? You’re new! Get out of our jurisdiction!” I think that was always the tension in the very beginning—to be the third agency getting tax money from this jurisdiction.

Do you think defending the $11 billion plan, rather than denouncing it, was a mistake?

It was a total mistake because Seattle is basically an anti-intellectual town. I said to Joel, “What is the incremental cost of us borrowing in this way?” He hadn’t seen the $11 billion number. I think he said it was $1.7 billion in net present value and I said, “Oh, OK. Do you think it’s worth it? And he said, “Yeah, I think it’s worth it.” …He genuinely believed that it was OK, and it’s not my field. So I believed it was OK. … But you can’t tell people about net present value on the radio in Seattle.

Why didn’t the SMP call the $11 billion plan a preliminary proposal, rather than presenting it as a finished finance plan?

They were fucked if they did and fucked if they didn’t, because they showed a plan that was maximum borrowing, where everything goes wrong that can. We were showing that we have enough ability to borrow that’s what the $11 billion was. It was designed to get through the council’s financial review—not a public vote, not a media storm.

In hindsight, should the plan have been made public at all?

Oh my god, Joel called me that night [before the $11 billion figure appeared in the Seattle P-I] and told me the $11 billion number was going to be in the paper, and the finance committee meeting was the next day. Joel and Tom, for all their faults, actually do know something about money. For all I think they’re autocratic or they had a tendency to be unavailable they knew something about money. So how could they make this mistake?

The fact is that when they reasoned through it the idea of borrowing from 2040 to 2050 to pay for today’s transit system made sense… to them it was a logical equation and it hasn’t made sense to anyone since. … If I had known then what I know now—that there was no way to dig us out of the $11 billion hole—logic would dictate that, for god’s sake, the last thing you want to do is go to the ballot. You want to talk to legislators and finance experts.

But we had very difficult time talking with legislators. When I first started I talked to [Seattle state Rep.] Frank Chopp, he was practically spitting at me, he was so angry. He kept saying, “ma'am, are you insane?” He hated the monorail project. He felt like there was some horrible conspiracy going on with the monorail.

When a transit project has its crisis, after a certain number of years, if people aren’t willing to make it happen it doesn’t happen. Greg didn’t have to give us any money. He didn’t have to give us anything. All he had to do is not pull the permits and say, “You know what? Their asses are on the line for this project, not mine,” and we would have been able to go ahead and we’d be building a monorail in January.

Why didn’t the SMP just break ground on the monorail sooner? Wouldn’t that have created the political will to get it done?

Our lawyers told us that if we signed that contract without the transit way agreement [with the city] and without having the financial review of the city council we would be open to suits that showed that we had committed the public to have to pay $25 to 40 million for termination for convenience. If we couldn’t live up to the contract we would be sued and we had [anti-monorail group] OnTrack filing lawsuits on a monthly basis. So apparently it was not possible to just sign the contract and go ahead … Our lawyers said, “That’s where you cross the line against fiduciary responsibility. You’ve wasted taxpayer dollars.”

Isn’t taxing car owners for years and building nothing an even bigger waste of taxpayer dollars?

It’s a total waste. But we can say in a conservative, legal sense that we didn’t know we didn’t know we were going to lose the permits; we didn’t know we were going to lose the election.

Was hiring Joel as executive director a mistake?

Any time you bring someone in from the private sector to run a government agency, there are risks. Any time you bring someone in whose other big project, the Seattle Commons, failed and made enemies, there are risks. Tom Weeks was in the same category. There were a lot of former Commons people associated with the monorail. So both Weeks and Horn had this Commons baggage. At the time Joel knew the project so well he believed that if nobody really owned the project, if you approached it like a bureaucracy, you would never get it done quickly. So he focused completely on knowing the whole project and being such a good negotiator that he was going to go and get us a good deal.

When I came in as board chair, I spent an entire month kissing asses all over the Puget Sound region. I ate a lot of shit. I have never seen Joel eat shit. I don’t think he realized the extent to which politics this region requires you go apologize to people and act like you think they’re fabulous even though you don’t. He is not good at that and that is an essential skill around here. It is not a meritocracy. The smart people are not in charge. He wasn’t good at that and over time he collected enemies.

Do you think Joel failed to take the obstacles to building the project seriously?

He was always a few steps ahead of us. … I think he was honest with me, but he didn’t see the obvious flaw that when the finance plan numbers came out there would be a public outcry so loud that the city council would not be able to give us a passing grade on our finance review. I don’t think that he acknowledged that that was possible, because he really believed in the goodness of the idea that you borrow these future dollars to pay for this transit project. … He was too smart for his own good about it and he couldn't imagine how the average person, the average media, was going to see it—how would they spin this whole thing. He told me the issue was going to be the MVET and [the fact that it would have lasted] 48 years, and it wasn’t.

They really were focused on solving the problem. He even sat me down and said, “Every project has a couple of these moments, where maybe it’s dead. We don’t know yet. We have to decide whether we’re going to keep trying or accept that we have a 30 percent shortfall and maybe it’s dead.” He’s able to taken in negative facts, but he’s not able to see things through the eyes of someone who doesn’t have his expertise.

Some board members say they had trouble getting information out of staff, and that if they had gotten straight answers about costs and the revenue shortfall things might have turned out differently. Do you agree?

There were board members like Cindi [Laws] and, conveniently, now Cleve [Stockmeyer] who say that—although I have to say, he had lots of access. He got everything he wanted. To tell you the truth, every time I asked for information I got it. … I don’t think there really was a lack of information.

What did you think of the monorail campaign this time around? Do you think the monorail agency itself could have done more to help the measure pass?

[The SMP] wrote this [brochure] that was way too long and way too wordy and the Public Disclosure Commission checked it out ahead of time. They said we couldn’t do press conferences. I was ready to take the risk anyway—Cleve and I were ready to jump off the cliff together and hold a press conference and [Interim Executive Director John] Haley was persuaded by the lawyers that it was dangerous to do a press conference.

The campaign didn’t get its act together enough to even hold press conferences. I don’t recall a single press conference – none.

Another mistake I take responsibility for is voting against to truncate the line to get to Dravus instead of Market. I thought it should have been Delridge to Market. Nobody knows where Dravus is. I didn't know where Dravus is. You have to get from Ballard to West Seattle somehow. What happened that day was Cleve and Steve Williamson came in saying we need to have a 10-mile proposal … and they both had been talking to Ceis the night before… and I thought, “somebody here has made a deal with somebody.” … And I should have just asked. … When it turned out that that did not have a deal we should have gone from Market to Delridge….

What happens next for everyone who’s left at the SMP?

People are going to go back to their daily lives and pick up their careers where they left off. They did really good service for the city of Seattle and it didn’t work out.