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Originally published September 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 17, 2005 at 12:31 AM

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Nickels rejects latest monorail plan

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is withdrawing his support for the monorail, and at a press conference said he is canceling the agreement for monorail construction permits.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is withdrawing his support for the monorail, and at a press conference this afternoon said he is canceling the agreement for monorail construction permits.

Nickels is asking the City Council to hold an emergency session next Thursday to put an advisory measure on the Nov. 8 ballot. Next Friday is the deadline to submit a ballot measure to King County Elections.

The measure, which would be Seattle's fifth monorail ballot question, is intended to ask the public whether the monorail should still be built given the project's financial constraints, Nickels said.

"That gives the monorail board one more opportunity at its Wednesday meeting to do the right thing and put its own measure on the ballot for voters to decide this November," Nickels said. "If they are unwilling to do that, then the city will do it for them."

The Seattle Monorail Project will hold a special session tomorrow, most of it behind closed doors. Yesterday was the deadline set last month by the mayor for SMP to offer a public re-vote plan -- to either increase taxes or shorten the line.

This afternoon, Gov. Christine Gregoire issued a statement supporting Nickels' move. "I personally do not believe to the monorail is the right approach because it will potentially divert attention and resources and not solve our critical transportation safety issues. Today, the Mayor placed this issue exactly where it belongs: in front of the people."

The planned 14-mile Green line from Ballard to West Seattle has been in increasing trouble since an $11.4 billion financing package was announced this summer, then renounced as too expensive. The project has suffered from cash-flow problems, with revenue from car-tab taxes -- the only funding source -- falling short. To compensate, SMP announced in June it would stretch its dollars by selling 40-year bonds, deferring interest payments and selling some so-called junk bonds with relatively high interest rates.

The public outcry prompted the resignations of SMP Executive Director Joel Horn and Chairman Tom Weeks.

Instead of a re-vote as urged by Nickels in a letter to monorail officials last month, SMP leaders chose in recent weeks to push for a three-month extension, so a new director, John Haley, could try to wring some costs out of the $2.1 billion project, and improve on the agency's discarded 50-year finance plan.

Haley, who joined SMP three weeks ago, has expressed frustration that a line in a pro-transit city, with most of the right-of-way already purchased, would face political turmoil this late in the planning. Nickels has been a longtime monorail supporter, although not with the same passion as he's pursued an Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel.

Several observers have warned that monorail controversies would help a statewide initiative to repeal gas taxes -- and therefore, jeopardize $2 billion in future gas taxes that state lawmakers have earmarked for viaduct work.

The mayor does not have direct control over the SMP, an independent agency. However, he wields political clout, and oversees the city's transportation and land-permitting departments. Last year, the City Council reserved the right to withhold construction permits if council members concluded that the project was unaffordable.

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