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Monorail tide turning among Seattle city government?

Seattle Times article (below the cut) dissects the City Council's switch from support to concern over the huge long-term costs; some said to be turning against it entirely.

Local News: Majority of City Council now troubled by monorail

By Jim Brunner
Seattle Times staff reporter

There was a time, not long ago, when Seattle's proposed monorail was considered virtually unassailable at City Hall.

Four public votes had affirmed the desire to build a monorail. And the populist nature of the initiative-generated rail line meant swift backlash for politicians deemed to be obstructing the people's will. The skeptics mostly learned to bite their tongues.

That has all changed in the past week, following revelations the proposed 14-mile Green Line will cost $11.4 billion by the time bonds are paid off in 2053.

A majority of the nine City Council members now say they're troubled by the project's finances, and at least three appear to be leaning against it. The shift is even more apparent among challengers seeking council seats, with candidates jockeying for position yesterday on an emerging anti-monorail bandwagon.

"The blood is in the water," City Councilman Jim Compton said. "Our job now is not to panic, but to make sure we have a careful process to make sure [the monorail] gets built if there is any way possible."

But Compton described himself as "very troubled" by what he's heard about the contract unveiled by monorail officials last week.

Council offices reported receiving hundreds of calls and e-mails about the monorail, with more than 90 percent calling on the council to kill the project. Some came from longtime critics, but many were from people identifying themselves as former supporters.

While most council members said they want to see the findings of an independent consultant before they make a decision, in interviews yesterday at least three appeared to be already leaning against the monorail plan, at least in its present form.

Councilman David Della said he is "against the current financial proposal now in front of us" and plans to vote against it. He said $11 billion over the next five decades was simply too much. "We're seeing a lot of e-mails. People are not willing to pay that long for one, 14-mile line," he said.

While Della's was the clearest statement of intent so far, others, including Richard McIver and Richard Conlin, made comments that fell just short of opposition.

The monorail discussion is likely to dominate City Hall for the coming months as council members prepare to vote on whether the project's financing is adequate—an approval necessary before the city can issue construction permits. Council members met in a closed-door session yesterday to discuss the possible legal implications for the city, with some concerned over the prospect of the city being on the hook if the monorail were to default on bond payments.

"Every time we pass each other in the halls, it's like, 'What are we gonna do with this?'" said Conlin, clasping his head with his hands.

Conlin, who chairs the transportation committee, has long been a monorail skeptic. He said given the latest information he would "have a hard time imagining that the financing plan could meet the standards that the council has set."

McIver, who chairs the council budget panel, said he, too, was worried.

"It doesn't feel good to me," he said of the proposed monorail line, which would cost $2.1 billion to build but $11.4 billion once the interest—including high-interest junk bonds—is paid off.

Still, most council members, including those skeptical of the proposal, said they want to avoid a hasty decision driven by the headlines of the moment. They're promising to withhold final judgment until a financial consultant they hired gives them an independent report.

That consultant, Manuel Padron and Associates, will be paid up to $150,000 to review the monorail plan, according to Council President Jan Drago.

The process is likely to take at least several weeks, and some council members yesterday suggested their review ought to resist any pressure from monorail proponents for a hasty vote.

Seattle Monorail Project officials plan a news conference this morning to counter "news reports with confusing numbers," they said in a news release issued last night.

Drago, who has been among the monorail's biggest boosters in recent years, said she would not allow a spate of headlines to destroy the project. "It would be irresponsible to make a prejudgment," she said.

Similarly, Councilman Nick Licata, a longtime monorail champion, said the council could not "close our eyes" to the financing problems, which are largely the result of lower-than-expected collections from the car-tab tax that voters approved to fund the project.

"But so often you hear a story, jump to a decision and realize there's more that has to be contextualized. We owe it to the public to walk through what we said we'd do," he said.

Councilman Tom Rasmussen said given the four public votes on the monorail, said "people expect us to be thoughtful."

Councilwoman Jean Godden said she was "a little alarmed" by recent reports, but felt "a duty to keep an open mind."

Mayor Greg Nickels also is taking a cautious approach for now, according to spokesman Marty McOmber. "Eleven billion is a big number," McOmber said. "But we want to do our due diligence. We want to see what is behind that number."

Several challengers running against council incumbents clearly sensed a hot topic, declaring in interviews and releases yesterday that the financial plan was a boondoggle in the making.

Robert Rosencrantz, an apartment-building owner and former housing official running against McIver, called for the project to be rebid. The current proposal was the product of a single bidder, Cascadia Monorail Co., and Rosencrantz argued that a new, competitive bidding process could produce a better project.

Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, who also is running for McIver's seat, called the monorail proposal "unacceptable" and said voters should get another chance to vote if the rail line is trimmed to cut costs.

Casey Corr, the former journalist and aide to Nickels who is challenging Conlin, said the price was "ridiculous" and noted that "most of that money would go to Wall Street bankers, not to improve transit service."

Linda Averill, the socialist candidate challenging Drago, yesterday referred to the monorail as "mismanaged" and "outrageous" in comments to the council.

Councilman Peter Steinbrueck cautioned against expecting that the council will immediately scuttle the project without a careful review.

"We can't just pull the plug tomorrow. That is not an option," he said.