Flaky is as flaky does with monorailists

Ah, the monorail. Talk about a great idea that turned out to be anything but.

At first it seemed like a visionary, populist plan that had the added cachet of bucking bored-sounding official objections. Plus, we already had a moneymaking monorail, so why not expand on the concept?

If you re-member, cabby Dick Falken-bury's idea was to build a gigantic, X-shaped system that pretty much hit all four corners of the city, and Seattle voters approved the idea in the late-1990s. The Seattle City Council responded with yawns, and nothing happened - until another vote at the turn of the century approved spending $6 million to really study the plan.

Sure, the study came up with a more realistic concept of building a 14-mile "starter" line that could be expanded in the future.

But hey, the scaled-back version was something a narrow majority of us could still live with, and voters gave the project another thumbs-up in 2002. Queen Anne and Magnolia residents living near the 15th-and-Elliott-avenue corridor of the line were especially enthusiastic, according to voting records.

It was sometime before the 2002 vote that, unfortunately, the monorailists started to turn flaky.

The big example of that trend was the monumental screwup that wildly overestimated the amount of car-tab tax that would come in to finance the project.

Conspiracy theorists may see something more sinister since the news wasn't announced until after the vote. But if the blunder were an item in this paper's Police Blotter, I'd headline it "Stupid conduct."

It wasn't the ONLY SIGN the monorail planners had been seduced by the silly side before the 2002 vote. There was also the decision about a route through downtown.

An early version talked about in a series of earnest public-outreach efforts called for the line to go down Second Avenue from Denny Way. It would have served Lower Queen Anne with a stop near the Space Needle, and the idea sounded reasonable to most.

The monorailists in all their wisdom saw it differently and decided that Fifth Avenue was the way to go, claiming that ridership numbers would be higher three blocks north.

A lot of people figured that monorail planners had caved in to threats of endless lawsuits filed by well-heeled condo dwellers on Second, but those people were just being cynical.

OK, there was the problem of the World's Fair monorail being on Fifth already. It's the only transportation system in the world that actually makes a profit, and roughly half a million bucks a year of that goes to the Seattle Center.

No problem. The monorailists assured everybody they'd make good on the loss - possibly by using the revenue from all those extra riders that would have been lost on Second, where it wouldn't have been necessary to whack the old monorail in the first place.

But I digress.

There was also the question of Paul Allen's quarter-billion-dollar monstrosity of a music museum. Architect Frank Gehry designed the Experience Music Project to straddle the old monorail like a psychedelic hausfrau raising her skirts as a mouse runs between her legs.

But without the old monorail in place, the architectural gesture would be meaningless. No matter. The monorailists wisely decided to wait until after the vote to make the call on a route that would link up to Fifth.

There was some talk before the vote of a route on Mercer and then south on Fifth Avenue North to Fifth, and another on Denny, north on Fifth North to Fifth; but they would have both skipped the EMP.

I suggested at the time that several tons of Spackle could take care of the gaping problem at EMP. But the route ended up crossing Seattle Center grounds so it could go through the museum, and the patch job wasn't necessary.

What a surprise! I mean, the route is kind of sacrilegious in an Olmstedian sense, and it has a series of clunky turns. But Seattle Center officials and citizen activists from Queen Anne have put on a happy face about the decision, and besides, it's not like Paul Allen gets special treatment from the city.

Now the latest news. The price tag from a single bidder has come in something like $300 million over the advertised price tag of $1.7 billion. The loophole has been closed that allowed Seattleites to get out of paying the car-tab tax by registering their vehicles outside of town, but the revenue is still coming in roughly a third less than originally estimated.

And topping it all off is the monorailists' plan to make up the higher cost and the tax loss by extending the car-tab fees through 2050 - and maybe longer.

Interestingly, some of that financing will come from sales of junk bonds. They're called that because the investment is riskier than normal, and that means relatively high interest rates of 7 or 8 percent are included.

And showing the wonders of compound interest over a long period of time, the final price tag now comes in at a staggering $11 billion and change. Ouch!

Not to worry, though. Monorailists - who have always put on happy faces of their own - assure us in newspaper ads that the price tag to build the line is really just $1.615 billion. The other $400 million doesn't count because it will be used for other pesky purposes such as property acquisition.

And as for the $11 billion, that doesn't really count either. You see, the dollar will be worth a nickel in 45 years. Really.

Sure, state Treasurer Mike Murphy is freaking out about the huge amount of money the monorailists want to collect from a couple generations of taxpayers. But he's probably an alarmist elitist - a fuddy-duddy who just doesn't understand the allure of a modern trans-portation system that would let more people get out of the cars and SUVs they need to buy in in-creasing numbers to pay off the monorail bonds.

And sure, there's a possibility of calamitous cost overruns - if any other major transportation project in this country is an indication. But it's best not to think about that, and we don't have to worry anyway: the monorailists will take care of everything.

Just as soon as a city council that approved a transportation boondoggle for South Lake Union approves this one.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.

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