Politics

A Billion Bucks a Mile

Why Seattle is rethinking mass transit
by | August 2005

In the old movie "Singles," one of the characters dreams the smart- growth dream of getting people out of their cars and onto the train by furnishing them with "great coffee and great music." That's still a dream in Seattle, where the film was set, and where traffic congestion is among the worst in the country. "People in Seattle are desperate for mass transit," says Richard Conlin, chairman of the city council's transportation committee.

That's why residents have repeatedly voted in favor of a building a 14-mile monorail line. But the project may now be doomed by cost overruns and shaky financing even before work on it starts.

The monorail was budgeted at $1.75 billion when voters approved it in 2002. Naturally, the price has gone up since then. What's worse, though, is that the funds to pay for it, which were to come out of car tax money, have fallen far short. To make up for the shortfall, Seattle monorail planners came up with a scheme that would ultimately have cost the city more than $11 billion, because payments were to be spread out to the year 2053. Some supporters of the project said it was only fair that future riders bear a part of the cost, but state Treasurer Mike Murphy called four decades of debt repayment "ludicrous." A majority on the city council agreed with him, and the rickety financing scheme collapsed on itself a month ago, leading to resignations and giving some opponents the satisfaction of declaring the whole monorail adventure over. "I think the project has lost its credibility," Conlin says.

Whether the monorail is really dead is not yet certain. But even if a new financing method is found, serious problems will remain. The rising and uncertain price tag could have a detrimental impact on other projects. Not only is a separate multibillion-dollar light-rail system under construction in Seattle, but Washington's legislature this spring approved a long-awaited statewide transportation package. Some of the biggest chunks of money are devoted to Seattle, including $2 billion to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct, a vulnerable tunnel that's important not only to Seattle drivers but to movement of international cargo from the port.

The state package is subject to a challenge by ballot initiative, however, and signatures are already being collected in an effort to repeal it. Even if it gets the state money, Seattle will still have to come up with another $2 billion of its own to pay for the Alaskan Way. That might be hard-scrounging if the monorail plan goes through at this point.

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