Urban Politics #90: A Critique Of The Monorail Legislation


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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A Critique Of The Monorail Legislation

On Monday, July 31st, the City Council voted 7 to 1, (I dissented and CM Steinbrueck was absent) for the Wills/Conlin Monorail legislation (CB # 113304). Thanks to CM Wills and Conlin, the bill did incorporate some of the language that was in the legislation (CB # 113305) sponsored by CM Nicastro and me.

However it still contained three major flaws. Those shortcomings could ultimately prove to be fatal in providing the public with a clear and thorough monorail plan. They are: 1) The ETC is dissolved as an independent body, 2) There will be no funding earmarked for a monorail feasibility study, 3) There is no guarantee of a public vote for approving or rejecting a monorail plan.

Let me explain why I think each of these are critical areas.

The legislation converts the present Elevated Transportation Company (ETC) which was the authority created by Initiative 41 as an independent public development authority, into an advisory committee with almost the identical name of Elevated Transportation Committee, so at least they can keep their acronym. As an advisory body, I do not believe it will carry the same weight as an independent authority. With its stature and effectiveness diminished so may the chance of the monorail receiving serious and equal consideration as an in-city transportation mode be diminished. As Judge Learned wrote in her June 7th Court Decision (see Urban Politics # 89) “There is an urgency to prevent its (ETC) demise. If the ETC is “dead”, the Initiative’s purposes cannot be furthered at all.”

The Ordinance does call for appointing 5 of the former ETC board members to the ET Committee. But I have heard that many of the current ETC board members will refuse to serve on the newly created body.

Some of the City’s opposition to retaining the current ETC is premised on the belief that it was hostile to Sound Transit. I asked the ETC leadership to respond to this charge and received a letter from their Chair Tom Carr. He wrote “The Elevated Transportation Company has been committed throughout its history to working with Sound Transit. In September 1999, at Sound Transit’s request our board adopted a resolution stating formerly our commitment to working together with Sound Transit. The resolutin passed unanimously. From the very beginning, the ETC has refused to consider any route that would duplicate any Sound Transit route.”

The second fault of the legislation is that an evaluation of the monorail is left in the hands of those agencies which have their primary commitment to making Sound Transit a success. Anything that may threaten or detract from that objective is seen as frivolous. Consequently there is no funding stream to specifically evaluate the financing or the technical application of a monorail to Seattle’s transit needs. The newly created ETC would simply comment and report on the City’s current transportation study.

The study, named the Intermediate Capacity Transit Project (ICT), is being conducted in cooperation with the County, the State, Sound Transit, and ETC. They are expected to complete their work by the end of the year. The study is evaluating 7 transit corridors within the City for possible use by various transportation technologies, including monorail.

The City Council will also provide $50,000 to the Elevated Transit Committee for its review of the Intermediate Capacity Transit Study elevated transit corridors and to enhance the level of detail to which elevated transit technologies are studied in the Intermediate Capacity Transit Study.

This funding level is hardly sufficient to obtain an outside consultant to check the assumptions and findings of the ICT project. I think there is a real chance that the ICT report will be laced with unsubstantiated technical criticisms of monorail service. That may well lead the Council to avoid a perceived risky venture and declare that a monorail is not feasible for Seattle.

The legislation that CM Nicastro and I had proposed would have provided sufficient funds to answer those technical questions and would have then brought a detailed monorail proposal before the voters for final approval. Instead we will now have the City Council relying on a study that will spend a tiny fraction in comparison to what Sound Transit has spent on planning, to determine whether monorail service is practical.

The last major flaw is that the public may never have an opportunity to vote on a monorail route or plan. The legislation states: Within one year after receiving the recommendation of the Elevated Transit Committee, if the City Council determines after the feasibility and financial studies are completed that a route or routes are feasible, the Council shall either (1) develop a funding package and commit to building, as a City or in cooperation with other governmental entities and/or private parties, one or more phases or (2) act to submit to the vote of the people a measure concerning funding and building, as a City or in cooperation with other governmental entities and/or private parties, one or more phases of a complete monorail system.

The options are good, but exercising either of them is dependent on the City Council determining the feasibility of a monorail, not the public. Given that past City Councils and some of the current Council Members consider a monorail as impractical at best, I doubt and the public probably also doubts that the City Council will put a well thought out proposal to the public. Or the Council could decide to go with just a downtown monorail loop, which is something short of what the public had voted on.

Proposed Monorail Advisory Ballot Measure

Council President Margaret Pageler has proposed a ballot measure (called the Monorail Advisory) for the primary election this September which would ask the voters of Seattle if they would like a monorail. The public already said they wanted one, but the advisory ballot could be structured to sharpen the focus in a positive manner. However, as it is drafted now, it sets up a straw man to be knocked down by common sense. In other words the choices provided would lead many voters to reject a monorail.

But you be the judge. Below are the questions that Pageler is proposing to place on the ballot. The Council will vote on this legislation during a Special Council Meeting tomorrow (8/2/00) at 1:30 PM in the Council Chambers.

Monorail Advisory

In 1997, Seattle citizens passed an initiative seeking to build a monorail system. Construction has been estimated to cost $35 million to $90 million or more per mile. A 40-mile citywide system might cost $1.4 billion to $3.6 billion or more to build. A shorter segment (about 10 miles) might cost about $350 million to $900 million or more to build. The bulk of the money would probably have to come from new local taxes. Assuming a middle range of $40 million to $80 million per mile ($1.6 billion to $3.2 billion for a 40-mile system, and one-quarter of that for a single segment), which one of the following options would you most prefer?

– No new monorail and no new taxes to build one.

– To build a 40-mile citywide monorail system with business and occupation (B&O) taxes, more than double or triple (115% to 230% increase) the City’s B&O tax rates to raise an additional $139 million to $279 million per year for 20 years.

– To build a 40-mile citywide monorail system with property taxes, increase City property taxes by about 59% to 118% (about $570 to $1141 in additional taxes per year for the average home now valued at $262,000) for 20 years.

– To build a single 10-mile monorail segment with business and occupation (B&O) taxes, increase the City’s B&O tax rates by 29% to 58% to raise an additional $35 million to $70 million per year for 20 years.

– To build a single 10-mile monorail segment with property taxes, increase City property taxes by about 15% to 29% for 20 years (about $143 to $285 in additional taxes per year for the average home now valued at $262,000).

I have the following problems with this proposed measure. The first has to do with timing. Why is it necessary to place this measure on the primary ballot? Why not place it on the November ballot? If the City wants to find out what are citizens are thinking, let’s place something on the ballot when more people will be voting. And if we are asking citizens if they want to build a monorail, we might as well ask them if they want to build a new City Hall.

Signatures are being collected right now for the pro-monorail Initiative 53 (web site www.riseaboveitall.org), which could be on November’s ballot. The City Council appears as if it is trying to head off a grass roots citizens effort by placing the advisory vote on the September ballot.

Placing the Monorail Advisory on the September ballot could cost the city up to $500,000. Ironically the majority of the Council refused to even consider my and Nicastro’s proposal to place a question on the ballot this fall to see if the voters wished to fund a feasibility study of the monorail because it would $500,000.

The wording of Pageler’s Monorail Advisory totally ignores the possibility of partnering with private businesses to build a monorail system. According to ETC board members, there had been interest but businesses were turned off by the City giving the cold shoulder to active pursuit of a monorail. By just emphasizing the potential tax impact to Seattle residents, the Monorail Advisory is designed as a “sticker price reality shock” to jolt dreamy eyed Monorail Moonies into fiscally responsible tax paying adults.

Finally the Monorail Advisory is being tossed out to the voters with all the weight of a cannon ball and then asking the public to play catch with us. We really will not know what to toss out until the results of the Intermediate Capacity Transit (ICT) Study is completed and the recommendations of the new Elevated Transit Committee are received. How can we go to the voters without knowing what these planning and advisory bodies will be recommending? The answer could be seen as: We don’t care. We don’t have to. We just don’t want the monorail.

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