Despite the natural rivalry, there seems to be a gentleman's agreement between Sound Transit and the Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) to avoid pitting their respective projects (light rail and monorail) against one another. For example, when I asked ETC Public Relations Coordinator Ed Stone what he thought of light rail, he politely said: "We have worked closely in coordination with Sound Transit, just as we have with Metro and DOT, just as we have with every other agency, to assure that all these systems can work together." (Um, the question was, "What do you think of Sound Transit's light-rail project?")

When I asked Sound Transit spokes-person Geoff Stuckart what he thought of monorail, he was equally civil: "Sound Transit has worked with the ETC in the past by, for example, sharing our ridership modeling, which became the basis of the ETC's ridership projections; we look forward to continuing our cooperative relationship."

It's weird. How come two massive public transportation projects, squarely locked in competition for limited public dollars, are so well behaved toward one another?

Well, besides the fact that Seattleites are aggressively polite, there are political reasons for pulling punches. For its part, the ETC thinks making nice is a good idea because Sound Transit has such weighty institutional support: Seattle's mayor, the King County executive, Sims' and Nickels' good friend Tim Hatley (who's heading up the anti-monorail campaign), the Seattle City Council, and just about every law firm in town. So, crossing Sound Transit doesn't seem wise to ETC folks like Ed Stone and board member Tom Weeks.

Meanwhile, playing nice is a good idea for Sound Transit because... well, quite frankly, if the public started comparing the two projects, monorail would make light rail look like a lousy investment. And I'm not talking about monorail's superior technology (monorail zooms above traffic on an automated track while light rail travels in traffic at street level). I'm actually talking about basic comparisons like cost per rider--the kind of comparative study that was done at the request of the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), but hasn't been shared with the public because Sound Transit made so much noise about it that the ETC decided to deep-six it.

The Stranger has looked at the study and talked with Daniel Malarkey, the economist who did much of the work behind it. Malarkey, a Harvard grad, is the former director of the Seattle office of ECONorthwest, the largest economic consulting firm in the Northwest. In fact, he recently worked on a project for Mayor Nickels doing an independent "risk analysis" of the monorail project. The basic data show that monorail provides the bigger bang for the buck.

"I came in very skeptical of monorail," Malarkey says. "Now, after doing a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, I think it's a good investment for the city. With monorail, the benefits will exceed the costs."

Is it a better investment than Sound Transit's light-rail project?

"I would have to say yes. I took the same approach when I analyzed Sound Transit in 1996, and Sound Transit did not pass the test." (Indeed, Malarkey's prophetic no-confidence vote on Sound Transit came true with abandon in late 2000, when Sound Transit acknowledged its project was $1.1 billion off the mark. The ETC volunteered to go through the same rigorous financial analysis, asking Malarkey to give the monorail project the once-over.)

Before comparing and contrasting light rail and monorail, I probably need to convince conflict-averse Seattle that the city actually must choose between the two. After all, the friendly "transportation choices" rhetoric is so loud in this town that I'm sure a lot of folks think we should just build both projects.

Sorry to rain on that parade, but there's this recession on--and taxing authority ain't what it used to be. With both plans demanding billions of dollars just to get up and running (and both having plans to extend their respective lines into webs of public transportation later), Seattle needs to choose one system and invest, before we're stuck with two half-assed projects and no more money in the till. In short, it's time to be smart, choosy consumers.

Well, here's a consumer report based on each agency's own numbers:

· The first-phase 14-mile monorail line will eventually carry 20 million riders a year and cost about $1.7 billion. (That price tag includes $426 million in additional costs, which, appropriately, the ETC added to its $1.2 billion capital-cost figure in a recent citywide mailer.)

· The first-phase 14-mile light-rail line will eventually carry 13 million riders a year and cost about $2.5 billion. (That price tag includes additional costs like a federally required community development fund and expensive tunneling.) Unlike the ETC, however, Sound Transit has been reluctant to factor these extra expenses into its public numbers, but you can find them in the fine print of the agency's April 9, 2000 Financial Plan, Table A-5, listed under "Light Rail."

To compare the two projects--just do the math. Monorail serves 53 percent more riders for nearly 35 percent less cost. Indeed, in Malarkey's analysis for the DSA (an analysis The Stranger obtained through a public-disclosure request to the ETC), Malarkey was asked to answer the following DSA query: "We believe the cost per new mass transit rider trip should be compared between the monorail plan and... light rail by Sound Transit. How does the monorail compare in costs and benefits to light rail?"

Smart question. The answer, according to Malarkey, is this: Monorail costs roughly $4.75 per trip annually; light rail costs $14.91 per trip. "The monorail's cost per trip would appear to be one third of light rail," the memo says--that's 68 percent less.

Sound Transit dismisses Malarkey's numbers, citing its own cost-per-new-rider stat--a criterion used by the Federal Transportation Administration--which essentially estimates the cost of converting an automobile user to a public-transit user. ("It evaluates a project within the entire regional transit system context," Sound Transit spokesperson Stuckart says.) Sound Transit puts that number at $12 per rider for its completed line.

In fact, Sound Transit ultimately tries to make it impossible to compare monorail to light rail, saying Malarkey's analysis is not consistent with standard methodologies and doesn't provide an "apples to apples" comparison.

Fortunately for you, the consumer, it is possible to make "apples to apples" comparisons. Just as Malarkey has done, simply look at each agency's costs and projected ridership numbers. (By the way, Malarkey used Sound Transit's ridership model to arrive at his ridership figures.) When you compare those basic numbers, it turns out that monorail produces more than twice as many riders per dollar.

josh@thestranger.com

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