Oh my God, was the monorail going to be another Sound Transit? Sound Transit's light rail, as we know, is roughly $2 billion over the $2.5 billion price tag voters approved in 1996. So, you can't blame local voters for being jumpy about a February 16, above- the-fold, four-deck, bold-type Times headline announcing monorail overruns. That headline sure made me jump.
But then I read the story.
The "damning" article didn't include an essential bit of info. Namely: $200 million over WHAT? For example, the Sound Transit overrun--as I've said--is $2 billion above what voters agreed to in 1996. Was the Times saying voters were going to be on the hook for $200 million more than the $1.75 billion they agreed to spend when we voted for the monorail project in 2002? The plan they gave the thumbs-up to again last November? Well, since the Times' article lacked an essential detail--namely, $200 million over WHAT?--the Times wasn't able to say the monorail was going to spike costs (they just didn't have the goods to honestly report that). But that's what the Times wanted to say. It's definitely what they implied. Listen to their blustery follow-up editorial: "The sole bid to build the monorail was $200 million higher than expected. It would have been nice to know about this gap before the November 2 election, when the people of Seattle were asked for their opinion on the monorail."
Well, it also "would have been nice to know" what the Seattle Times actually meant by a $200 million gap. Not finding this crucial bit of info anywhere in the Times coverage--Times editors should have demanded this important context from their reporter--I asked the reporter myself. Your paper has written: $200m over. Over what? I e-mailed.
The reporter, Mike Lindbloom, e-mailed back that he meant the bidder's starting proposal was $200 million over basic estimated system costs of $1.3 billion. That means, according to the Times, the bidder's first offer was about $1.5 billion. So it turns out that the Times was running screamer headlines and finger-wagging editorials because the initial monorail bid was potentially $250 million below what voters approved. The headline could have been, "Monorail bid starts out $250 million below voter-approved price." Instead, the Times, not even knowing where the bid stands today, scared voters with a misleading front-page story and an ill-informed editorial.
Now, don't get me wrong. While I am a pro-monorail freak, I'm not that much of a Pollyanna about the agency. Certainly, with revenues coming in a third less than originally projected (a story the monorail fans at The Stranger jumped on ["Monorail Agency Faces Multimillion-Dollar Shortfall," Erica C. Barnett, Aug 14, 2003]), it's going to be difficult for the SMP to build the promised system under its voter-mandated bonding cap and with the available MVET tax. I, for one, am concerned about plausible rumors that the SMP is going to kill up to 6 of 19 planned stations. That would be unacceptable--and would be worthy of a four-deck headline.
But newspapers should hold their fire until the SMP actually betrays voters on that point--not run with misleading stories that jar voters who are already fatigued about things like Sound Transit's huge overruns and system shortfalls.
With its misleading stories, all the Times does is reveal its anti-monorail agenda, and so, ruin its own credibility as an honest watchdog. This was made even more obvious because the Times' front-page monorail story was accompanied that day by a story splashed across the front of the Times' local section that declared, "Sound Transit budget on track." On track? On track to come in one-third short of its original route and two-thirds short on its ridership! And, again, it's at least 68 percent over budget to get to the U-District.
Obviously, there's going to be gap between what the monorail bidder initially proposed and what the SMP can afford within the voter-mandated bonding limits (that's the way contract negotiations work). But if anything, I hope the contract is $200 million over $1.3 billion. The SMP should go to the limit on their cap, so, unlike Sound Transit, it can give voters what we asked for: A 14-mile system from Ballard to West Seattle that carries 69,000 rides a day.
The monorail agency will only deserve a dress down from editorial pages if it fails to do that--not when it's duking it out with a bidder to deliver the promised system at cost, or as far as the Times knew, $250 million below cost.