SEATTLE CITY COUNCIL members claim that Initiative 41's monorail project should be abandoned because nobody's offered to help fund it. That's not true.
Last summer, members of the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC), the guardians of the monorail project, checked to see if anyone was willing to help pay for the train. They were. "The responses were very encouraging," says ETC Chair Tom Carr. In fact, 14 companies responded to the ETC's call for interest in building and partially financing the monorail. Big-league companies responsible for rapid transit in Europe, Asia, and North America sent binders of information about what sort of monorail projects they'd done and what they could do for Seattle. Carr says four or five promised to put up funds if the city would do the same.
"To say it's attracted no private capital--I disagree with that. It certainly attracted mine," says Tom Albro, chairman of Railsafe, which operates Seattle's current monorail between downtown and Seattle Center. Railsafe was one of the companies that asked the ETC to let them help build the new monorail. They even spent $60,000 to study the "downtown circular" monorail route, and found it to be feasible. "That was something we did because we're in Seattle, and we understand transportation in a way that most people don't," Albro says. During a meeting with the ETC last July, Albro said he "believes there is sufficient private interest" to pay for required feasibility and environmental studies and a percentage of the monorail's construction.
Mitsui, Japan's biggest general trading company, and Bombardier Transportation, North America's rail-train manufacturing giant (which brought Disney World its monorail), also jumped at the chance to fill our city's embarrassing rapid-transit void. They and several other companies sent the ETC letters that basically said they really, really want to build Seattle's monorail.
Carr says that when he met with potential private backers, he asked what assurance they needed before they would invest money in the project. "We heard pretty much... two things," he says. "'We need to see the city as a really active partner in this (because you guys are nice, but you don't own the streets).' And two, 'we'd need an exclusive franchise of some sort.'" But not only has the city council not been a partner in building the monorail, it has stood in the way.
Even when Seattle City Council members aren't tabling funding to study the rail system, proposing legislation to overturn the initiative, or refusing to meet with monorail proponents, Mayor Paul Schell is pushing taxis as the best public-transit alternative. Potential funders can read the city loud and clear. "The message to us is clearly one of a lack of local support for the project," a Bombardier representative wrote in a letter to the ETC. "That local support and commitment is essential to the project's success."
At this point, Mitsui, which has been one of the most serious potential financial backers, won't comment on whether they'd be willing to help pay for the monorail in the face of city hall opposition. A company executive would only say they are "waiting to see what happens." According to Patrick Kylen, treasurer for a new monorail initiative called the Seattle Popular Transit Initiative (which would fund an honest-to-goodness feasibility study) and city council candidate for 2001, Mitsui may have been irrevocably put off by Seattle officials' cold shoulder. "I guarantee that no city council member contacted any of these businesses," he says.
So, if City Council Members Margaret Pageler and Richard McIver have a point when they say there's a lack of financial interest from the private sector, they can thank themselves. Big companies like Hitachi and Mitsui, who were originally interested in the project, are now thinking twice. And who can blame them, when they see Seattle politicians and one of the city's big fat papers openly fighting a monorail that was mandated by 53 percent of the city's voters?