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Thursday, June 30, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Staunch allies of monorail warn agency: Change or fail

Seattle Times staff reporters

Like friends staging an intervention for a troubled loved-one, two of the Seattle monorail's staunchest City Hall allies yesterday warned monorail board members the project needs to change its ways or it will die.

In a letter to the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) board, Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata and City Attorney Tom Carr said the monorail agency's approach "is not working" and urged board members to consider drastic actions — including a staff shake-up or sending the contract out for a rebid — in light of recent public furor over the monorail's costs.

"We do not believe that changes at the margin or more explanations will be enough. Do not be afraid to reorganize the staff dramatically, consider new taxes or even to re-bid the project," Licata and Carr wrote.

The two cited impeccable pro-monorail credentials in offering blunt advice. Carr was the first chairman of the Elevated Transportation Co., the fledgling monorail agency created by a 1997 voter initiative. Licata has been the monorail's longest-serving sympathizer on the council.

"We have been monorail supporters from day one. We have been with the project through the highs and the lows. We understand that at this difficult time you are hearing the loud drumbeat from those who have vehemently opposed the project. We thought that it was important that you heard from two of your friends," the letter said.

Public outcry over the monorail has deluged City Hall since it was reported last week that the $2.1 billion project would require $11.4 billion in total principal and interest payments through 2053. The car-tab taxes that are sole funding source for monorail construction could last until 2078 if the growth rate lags at the low end of SMP projections.

State Treasurer Mike Murphy and others have publicly blasted the project's financing — which relies in part on high-interest, 40-year bonds — as unusual and irresponsible.

Monorail officials have defended the project, saying the public should focus on what it calls the up-front project cost, which they say is $1.94 billion in today's dollars, and not the total with interest. But Licata and Carr criticized the agency's response, saying the monorail has lost grassroots support that has propelled it in the past.

"We wanted to let you know that your message is not working," the letter said. "The public seems legitimately angry about the plan as currently proposed. You must do something dramatic to change this perception."

Asked whether the letter's reference to shaking up the monorail staff was a call to fire SMP director Joel Horn, Licata declined to comment "on who they (the monorail board) should be retaining or dismissing."

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Horn could not be reached for comment.

Said a monorail spokeswoman, Natasha Jones: "We just got the letter this afternoon and I have no indications from board members or anyone else that any changes in strategy or exit strategies are planned. We're chugging along."

She blamed the uproar on "confusion" over the $11 billion figure. "We need to get back to basics," such as the 14-mile line and 2,100 construction jobs, she said.

Tonight, the monorail board will discuss whether to approve borrowing up to $350 million to keep the project moving toward a groundbreaking later this year.

The letter from Licata and Carr comes as the proposed monorail has seen its support at City Hall steadily dwindle, making it more of a challenge for the project to win council approval for its construction permits.

Also yesterday, Councilman Richard Conlin, chairman of the council transportation committee and a longtime monorail skeptic, issued a statement calling for a "monorail exit strategy" and indicated he was prepared to vote against issuing the needed permits.

In an interview, Councilman Peter Steinbrueck also said he would vote no if he had to vote today, citing the agency's finances, as well as proposed monorail tracks and columns he called "gross in size and out of scale, not what we expected."

Councilman David Della also has signaled opposition, and Councilman Richard McIver has said the proposal "doesn't feel good" but hasn't entirely made up his mind. Others on the nine-member council have expressed deep concerns but said they are awaiting a review by a consultant hired by the council prior to making a final decision.

Monorail Board Chairman Tom Weeks has aimed for a July 13 or July 20 SMP vote on the $1.6 billion contract between the agency and Cascadia Monorail Co., a 28-member team led by Fluor Enterprises and train supplier Hitachi of Japan, that submitted the only contract bid last year. With costs of utility relocation, real estate, agency overhead and cash reserves, the project adds up to well over $2.1 billion.

One monorail board member, Cindi Laws, called the 50-year car-tab tax a "non-starter" and said the board needs to look at all options, including a rebid.

Another train company, Bombardier of Canada, which dropped out of the competition to build the monorail, is now pushing for another chance.

Licata and Carr's letter said they "do not believe that it is time to give up on a monorail transit option" noting that Sound Transit's light-rail project went through a "very difficult" period and survived.

"The monorail can survive this difficult period, but only if you are not afraid to act boldly," the letter concluded.

In an interview, Carr said, "I don't think this plan flies" but noted that as the lawyer for the City Council and the mayor, he would abide by their decision as policy makers.

Krista Camenzind, researcher for the monorail critics' watchdog group OnTrack, called the Licata-Carr letter "a wake-up call to SMP board members, and we trust they will take it seriously."

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who has been publicly supportive of the project in the past, has continued to take a cautious stance in recent weeks.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said yesterday Nickels is taking "a thoughtful approach" and wanted to see more analysis of the proposed monorail contract. He said there are several options available to the city, including sending the project back to the monorail board to be reworked.

Seattle Times reporter Bob Young contributed to this report.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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