Could monorail project get back on the track?
The Seattle Monorail Project's decision this week to dump its financing plan doesn't mean a refund of the two years of car-tab taxes motorists...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Monorail Project's decision this week to dump its financing plan doesn't mean a refund of the two years of car-tab taxes motorists already have paid toward the $2.1 billion line.
But just about everything else about the fate of the monorail is uncertain.
SMP board members were on the verge of signing a contract later this month but called a timeout in response to public outrage over a new plan to levy 50 years of taxes and require debt payments totaling $11.4 billion, including interest.
Board members are only beginning to think about how this drama might unfold over the rest of the year. They say everything about the project is on the table, including who manages it and how it's paid for.
Even if they walk away, the car-tab tax probably will continue because SMP had already borrowed $110 million from Bank of America as of May 31, on top of the $73 million Seattle residents have paid in taxes.
Much of the debt could be retired by selling off land SMP has bought for stations and its Interbay operations center. Still, about two more years of taxes would be required to pay the debt, SMP officials have said.
Here are some possible scenarios for the project:
Public hearings on the monorail
Tuesday, 5:30 p.m., Ballard High School Auditorium, 1418 N.W. 65th St.
Wednesday, 7 p.m., Seattle Monorail Project meeting room, The Securities Building, Fourth Avenue entrance, 1913 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Follows regularly scheduled monorail-agency board meeting but will start no earlier than 7 p.m.
Thursday, 6:30 p.m., West Seattle High School Auditorium, 3000 California Ave. S.W.
Source: Seattle Monorail Project
Terminate the SMP
The City Council could kill the project by refusing to grant construction permits on city streets and Seattle Center land, Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said.
"Off the top of my head, I think they [SMP] ought to have 30 days to come up with a different direction that may have some merit. If they're not able to, the council ought to consider bringing it to a close," he said.
Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, who co-sponsored the 2002 bill that allowed city voters to enact a monorail tax but then soured on the project's management, this week proposed a special session to disband the SMP. That isn't in the works right now.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said lawmakers have been worried about monorail funding for a year so he's glad the board decided Thursday night to scrap the finance plan. "I don't know if a special session is necessary at this point," he said.
Another fatal blow for SMP would be if a pending lawsuit succeeds in getting the car-tab tax declared unconstitutional, and the tax is ended.
Voter-approved tax increase
With voter approval, the agency could raise its current car-tab tax of $140 per $10,000 of vehicle value to as much as $250, or add a car-tab fee of up to $100, a property tax or a car-rental tax, according to the 2002 state law.
But a new tax could provoke opposition from some politicians, who already hoped to ask voters to dig into their wallets for expansions to regional highways and light rail.
"I believe taxpayer exhaustion is a concern," City Councilman Richard McIver said. "We have some basics to deal with before we add a new tax."
It also would mean a fifth monorail ballot measure.
City Councilman Nick Licata said the outcome would be hard to predict.
"One-third would oppose a monorail no matter what, one-third would support a monorail no matter what, and for one-third it depends on what the package is," he said.
Before voters would trust the agency with more money, it would have to remove its senior management, Licata said, as Sound Transit did in 2001 after cost overruns.
Re-bid the project
Bombardier of Canada, the company that invented the snowmobile in 1937 and expanded into trains and aircraft, couldn't meet SMP's bidding rules last year but remains interested in offering lightweight composite trains in Seattle.
Advocates say a system could run on smaller tracks for at least $200 million less than the currently proposed contract featuring heavier trains by Hitachi. Hitachi trains have operated since 1964 in Japan.
So far, SMP has been unwilling to risk a Hitachi bird in the hand for the Bombardier bird in the bush.
A Bombardier executive sent a letter to SMP this week about discussing a possible re-bid.
But Tom Horkan, SMP's construction director, said yesterday Bombardier has not identified which firms would build tracks and stations, and in his view, the firm has not proved it could guarantee the performance of its partners.
"For people to keep saying there's another proposal out there is misrepresentation. It's just a bunch of hype from a couple of consultants," said Pat Flaherty, president of the Cascadia team that would build the monorail under the pending contract.
SMP opponent Henry Aronson says a bigger problem is an inexperienced monorail board.
"They've wrecked one train. We cannot give them another train to wreck," he said.
Change the route
Voters would have to approve any shortening of the 14-mile route from Crown Hill in Ballard to Morgan Junction in West Seattle.
McIver said he can't imagine voters would back a shorter line.
A new vote would offer a chance to simplify the line. The planned segment through Seattle Center was originally touted by SMP as a way to save money, but the agency would pay at least $27 million extra for landscaping, aesthetic improvements and right of way.
Trains should run straight down Second Avenue, said Dick Falkenbury, a tour-bus driver who started the grass-roots monorail movement. That would reduce kinks in the line where the current plan shows trains turning from Fifth Avenue to Second Avenue near Westlake Center.
Two years ago, SMP rejected a suggestion by William Justen of Samis Land to run trains straight down First Avenue South, instead of weaving past King Street Station, behind the stadiums and over Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway — an area where SMP still hasn't secured access.
A revote could allow such changes.
But it's unlikely route realignments by themselves would close SMP's funding gap. They could cause a whole new set of block-by-block debates over who wants the tracks over their neighborhoods.
Staff writer Bob Young contributed to this report.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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