Back in September, The Stranger ran a story titled "Monorail Paper Trail" [Sept. 11] that presented some pretty damning evidence about Seattle Monorail Project finance director Daniel Malarkey, pointing out his role in the agency's 30 percent revenue shortfall. We pulled the original cover text for the story, "Heads Must Roll," because it seemed excessively harsh. In retrospect, we regret being so squeamish about calling for Malarkey's head. Last Friday, after months of more bad financial news, Malarkey resigned, claiming a desire to spend more time with his family and coach a West Seattle youth soccer team. "I think it'll allow me to lead a better-balanced life," Malarkey says.

Malarkey's resignation came one day after the agency announced what appeared to be great news for the monorail: The agency's tax base, originally projected to grow at a rate of 4.7 percent per year, is now expected to expand annually by 6.1 percent--a jump the agency says will enable it to build a $1.4 to $1.6 billion monorail. (The original plan called for a $1.7 billion line.) But beneath the surface, the news wasn't quite so rosy: Four noted economists who reviewed the report--prepared by ECONorthwest, the consulting firm at which Malarkey was once a managing partner--suggested that while the growth range in the report seemed "reasonable," a 4.8 percent growth rate would be more realistic. (Malarkey points out that most economists assume a "wide range of uncertainty" in long-term forecasts, and says that even near the low end of the range given by ECONorthwest, the SMP should be able to build a downsized monorail.)

One of the four skeptical economists, Dick Conway of Dick Conway and Associates, noted in his written comments that the SMP forecast's projections of income growth, car ownership, population, and inflation were all higher than those from Conway's own forecast for Sound Transit, which covers most of the Puget Sound region. "Given that Seattle is the slowest-growing part of the region, it seems likely to have the slowest-growing stock of vehicles," Conway says. In his written remarks, Conway suggested that a more conservative growth rate of "less than 5.1 percent" would be prudent. Conway's Sound Transit forecast predicts a tax-base growth rate of just 5.1 percent.

But despite the negative reviews, the SMP is spinning its revamped forecast as "great news," a familiar refrain to anyone who has observed the agency during its first year. In recent months, the agency has spun negative revenue forecasts, downscaled station designs, and a November decision to build part of the monorail line on a single track as good news, claiming these developments will challenge monorail planners to "build a better monorail."

As finance director, Malarkey has been one of the main architects of the culture of good news spin. Exhibit A: In The Stranger's September story about the monorail's tax-revenue shortfalls, Malarkey said that although he was surprised by monorail tax-base estimates that came in nearly one-third higher than his own earlier projections, he saw it as a windfall, not a cause for alarm. "I was like, 'Right on--we're going to Northgate!'" he said at the time. Those estimates, like many of the SMP's early predictions, turned out to be wildly optimistic.

barnett@thestranger.com

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