Monorail: Taking a licking and still ticking

Judging from the frequent applause, occasional boos, random groans and intermittent hisses that greeted the first batch of speakers, the large crowd at a July 5 public hearing over the monorail was divided fairly evenly between supporters and critics of the proposed transportation system.

However, critics far outnumbered supporters among the initial 21 of 100 people who signed up to speak that Tuesday night at Ballard High School.

Ironically, one of the critics was Dick Falkenbury, the former cab driver who came up with the monorail idea in the first place. Falkenbury has his own proposals to save the monorail (see sidebar), but others want to kill the project entirely.

Acting Seattle Monorail Project head Kristina Hill acknowledged that serious concerns have been raised since the $11.4 billion financing package was announced. "Some of it isn't as surprising to us as it is to you," she said.

Hill got a round of applause when she noted that executive director Joel Horn and board chairman Tom Weeks had resigned. But Hill was also applauded when she praised the "extraordinary effort and commitment" of the other monorail board members. "The focus now... is on moving forward," Hill said.

Queen Anne resident John Coney agreed. An ardent monorail supporter who is a board member of the Queen Anne Community Council and chair of both the Uptown Alliance and the Magnolia/Queen Anne District Council, Coney stressed that he was speaking only for himself.

But he said the city would be very happy to have a monorail when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is out of commission for up to a decade while it's being replaced.

"As a board, it's your responsibility to carry out the will of the voters," Coney added. Still, he brought up a bottom-line concern many share. "It's very important that you fine-tune the finances."

Richard Hablewitz was also worried about the money issue, but from a different perspective. "Why should tourists and sports fans get the benefit of the monorail if only people in Seattle pay for it?" he asked.

"I'm very against the monorail," added Hablewitz, who also slammed the monorail board for spending big bucks recently on full-page newspaper ads when the money could have gone to other transportation needs.

"I think anyone in favor of the monorail should be voted out of office in the next election - senators included," he said in obvious reference to non-voting monorail board member and state Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Queen Anne). It was a comment that drew applause and a roar of approval.

Grant Cogswell, a co-author of one of the monorail initiatives, noted that the monorail has been approved in four votes, and he urged the monorail board to build the system.

The plan needs some tweaking, he conceded, but Cogswell was clearly angry at objections to the system - especially a city council member's comment that the dream is dead.

"If the dream of the citizens using democracy to change the infrastructure... if that dream is dead, we are in a lot of trouble," he said.

Cogswell also slammed the OnTrack opposition group, saying its members have not been as open as the monorail agency has been. The comment was greeted by boos and hisses from the audience.

"It's OK if you hiss. I would like to see OnTrack open its books," he replied, alleging that developer and monorail opponent Martin Selig is bankrolling the group.

Geof Logan, from Fremont, said it shouldn't be a surprise that the monorail project is in chaos. That's because - with the exception of former Metro director Paul Tolliver - no one on the monorail board has any experience with mass transportation, Logan said.

"You have lost the faith, trust and confidence of the voters and citizens," he said to the board. "You have to go." Logan suggested the board turn the project over to the state. "I personally favor termination (of the project)," he added.

Charles Redmond said he was "reasonably pleased" with the existing monorail plan, although the West Seattle resident was concerned about a bottleneck in his neighborhood and the reliance on a single track for some parts of the 14-mile system.

But Redmond downplayed the significance of the dropped price tag, saying he'll end up paying a quarter million dollars in interest for his home.

"I personally would be willing to pay more MVET (motor vehicle excise tax)," he said of the only revenue source for the monorail. "So please, let's keep the dream alive."

Neighborhood reaction

The Queen Anne Community Council sent a letter to the monorail board objecting to the project based primarily on design issues around Lower Queen Anne and the Seattle Center.

Among the objections was one about a change that has seen the system's column size go from "slender and elegant to freeway overpass proportions," according to the letter.

"I think people are starting to realize how ugly it will be," said council chair Ellen Monrad. There's a mood on the community council that city residents have become the victims of a bait-and-switch routine, she added.

The council members include a lot of architects and city planners, and they spent a lot of time on the route and station designs in the neighborhood, Monrad said.

"With the exception of John Coney, they are really disillusioned about the whole process," she said. In fact, Monrad added, a segment of the council wishes the Monorail Project would just go away.

Vic Barry, president of the Magnolia Community Club, said that his organization has not taken a formal position about the monorail, but he has noticed rumblings of discontent in the neighborhood.

"My observation is the majority of people in Magnolia have been opposed to the Monorail Project for some time," he said. One reason for that is plans don't include a park-and-ride lot for the proposed Dravus Street station, according to Barry.

Comparing it to the Berlin Wall, he also said the new, more heavy-duty monorail design would be a blight on the cityscape. In addition, Barry slammed the monorail MVET as an unfair tax because people outside of Seattle will use the system without paying for construction costs.

There's another problem with the MVET, he believes. "It's a real drain on our tax base when we have so many other real transportation needs," Barry said, naming the viaduct replacement as one.

An inside view

"The board, I believe, is taking control of the situation," said member Kohl-Welles. A Queen Anne resident who is on the monorail board because part of the route is in her legislative district, she noted that the monorail finance plan has been abandoned.

Kohl-Welles said board members are open to any and all alternative methods of paying for the system. "Raising taxes could be one."

She said that includes possibly doubling the MVET, a move that would almost certainly require a new vote. "But I think, realistically, that's a difficult one to achieve," Kohl-Welles allowed.

"We're also looking at more conventional financing if we phased in the construction," she said. Beyond that, according to Kohl-Welles, the Seattle Monorail Project has legislative authority to tap other revenue sources such as car taxes, property taxes and sales taxes - but not gas taxes. "None of this has been totally fleshed out," she said of potential financing fixes.

The number one priority is finding a permanent director to replace Horn, preferably someone with a high profile, said Kohl-Welles, who added that a search committee has been formed.

She predicts the monorail board will do something fairly quickly in an effort to move forward with the project. "There's a limit on the public's patience," the senator noted.

You can reach senior staff reporter Russ Zabel at 461-1309 or by email at[[In-content Ad]]