Monorail Guide

BUILD IT

lie #1: There's No Private Funding

lie #2: The Technology Won't Work

lie #3: No One Will Want to Live Near the Monorail

Ugly Beauty

Enemies & Allies

THE BIGGEST BARRIER that prevents people from taking the monorail seriously is Sound Transit and its proposed $1.9 billion light-rail line, the anointed answer to our transportation problems. Indeed, thanks to the fact that elected officials are championing light rail, the project is now in line for $500 million in federal money. If that money comes through (the Federal Transit Administration is expected to make its recommendation to Congress this month), Sound Transit will attain unstoppable momentum--further marginalizing the monorail in the minds of official Seattle.

Fattening up Sound Transit hardly seems like a wise idea. After all, the project, which hasn't even broken ground yet, is already riddled with problems: It's an awkward way to move people; it's difficult to build; and the budget isn't credible. Case in point: Last April, Deputy Light Rail Director Mary Jo Porter told The Stranger that Sound Transit's pending deal with the University of Washington (the city promised to solve any traffic problems surrounding the Northeast 45th Street light-rail station) would not add unforeseen mitigation costs to the light-rail budget. Well, we looked at the deal, crunched the numbers, and reported that Porter was dead wrong--the agreement would send Sound Transit over the top by nearly $5 million ["Mystery Train," Josh Feit, April 20]. Whattya know? A month later, on May 20, when the pivotal UW deal was finalized, Sound Transit said they needed to pay the UW millions of dollars more than originally planned. (According to respected Sound Transit critics like Emory Bundy, similar mitigation budget gaffes are likely to plague project construction in Rainier Valley, the downtown tunnel, and Tukwila.)

This miscalculation is a handy metaphor for the lack of credibility that shadows light rail. Indeed, here's a list of problems that hamper the project's credibility, problems that should make us think twice before we clink our champagne glasses in celebration of the $500 million that's likely to come our way.

· Paul Schell and Sound Transit were counting on between $80 and $200 million from Olympia to help fund light rail. They got $15 million. This doesn't bode well for garnering future support.

· One of the three groups competing for the light-rail contract, Japan's Obayashi, pulled out of the running earlier this year after a construction manager for the company, Akio Watatani, said the job was too "complicated" and couldn't be finished in the expected three-and-a-half years. Apparently, the monorail isn't the only project wanting for private interest.

· The proposed 22-mile line is bogged down by lawsuits and neighborhood critics. In Rainier Valley, for example, activists with Save Our Valley have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming that the at-grade system--which will rip their 65 percent minority neighborhood in two--is discriminatory.

· The line--a "spine" for a future system--doesn't effectively cover the region. (Can you say "Bellevue"?)

· Powerful opinion-makers like the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) are advising their members to reject the plan, because the line doesn't even make it to Northgate. Not reaching Northgate means the route will actually cause more problems than it solves, because without a Northgate line, downtown will be crippled by buses. Here's why: Light rail is slated to displace the buses from the downtown tunnel, moving them up to street level; the DSA estimates that light rail could lead to as many as 150 more buses downtown. If the line went to Northgate, they reason, buses headed in that direction would be unnecessary.

· Thanks to the fact that a good portion of the line is at street level (at grade), not only will the trains be slowed down by auto traffic, but the trains will be limited to four train cars, rather than the standard six (critics say this is in order to avoid blocking intersection traffic when the train comes to a stop.) Obviously, this puts a ceiling on ridership capacity per scheduled run.

· King County Executive and Sound Transit Board Member Ron Sims is asking taxpayers to kick in even more money for light rail by raising the sales tax three-tenths of a cent. About $40 million a year (of the total $120 million) would go to pay interest on bonds targeted at extending the light-rail line to Northgate.

· Extending the line to reach Northgate could also involve a Paul Schell plan to borrow money that was supposed to be dedicated to Sound Transit's second phase. The plan would essentially borrow $88-108 million from moneys originally dedicated to "Phase II." (Voters have yet to approve "Phase II.") So far, voters have only agreed to pony up $1 billion toward the light-rail line through a .4 percent sales tax increase and .3 percent Motor Vehicle Excise Tax increase. It was to be a 10-year commitment. Borrowing money from the future will not only make "Phase II" more difficult to fund, but it will also force the public to pay a higher tax burden than the one they agreed to when they voted to approve "Phase I" in 1996.

· Studies show that because of the system's limited scope, it may only reduce traffic congestion by a measly 1.5 percent.

· Capitol Hill neighbors are going to be driven crazy by round-the-clock tunnel construction.

This host of setbacks, bad planning, and future dilemmas certainly raises alarm bells about Sound Transit. With a simpler technology like the monorail available, it's time to get real about solving our transportation problems.