What Went Wrong with the Green Line Project?

Why was the Seattle monorail plan defeated at the polls?

by Bob Fleming

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In the general election of 8 November 2005 the voters of Seattle voted to kill the monorail project. Why?

I think that it was a combination of errors made in the early part of the project, a recent outcry over a faulty financing plan, and finally city government reacting to defiance by the Seattle Monorail Board (SMP) by withdrawing support from the project.

I think early errors included routing the line through the Seattle Center, a poor choice of financing the project soley through vehicle taxes, and a fatal error in projecting revenue from the vehicle taxes.

It is my opinion that the route through the Seattle Center and south on Fifth Avenue was a poor decision for four reasons. It adds additional distance and delay to what is supposed to be a rapid transit line. Many people did not want the monorail to intrude into the space in the Seattle Center. The extra length of the line adds considerably to the cost of the project. And the route requires the demolition of the existing Seattle Center Monorail.

I believe that the taxing plan was poor because it provided for only one source of revenue, the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). I also believe this tax created resentment because it placed the entire burden on vehicle owners instead of spreading the tax load across a wider range of citizens. It also generated opposition from many car owners because they had to pay hundreds of dollars annually.

The revenue projection error occured when auto licensing information provided to the monorail project was supposedly of only vehicles of Seattle residents, when in fact it included a large number of cars outside of Seattle. This resulted in a serious overestimate of the amount of taxes that would be collected from Seattle car owners.

Later, when the error in vehicle ownership data was discovered, I think another fatal error was made by a decision not to seek additional taxes. Instead the decison was to try to do the best they could even though revenues were about 30% short of what had been expected.

As a result of the project being underfunded, in mid-2005 the SMP announced a scaled-back plan that included a financing plan that would cost about $9 billion in interest and would take about 50 years to pay off. Not only the opposition, but also much of the public and many government officials turned against the SMP.

The SMP started working out a better plan. But then Seattle mayor Greg Nickles gave the SMP an ultimatum to put a viable proposal before the voters by a certain date. The SMP said it needed more time because of the complexity of the project, and defied the mayor.

When the SMP refused to present a ballot issue by the mayor’s deadline, the mayor reacted to the defiance by withdrawing support from the monorail and the city council also withdrew it’s support.

The SmP hurriedly came up with a ballot proposition for a shortened line and a shorter, less expensive financing plan. The proposition, which officially became Proposition 1, asked for approval of the shortened line, with the additional statement that if the proposition was not approved, no monorail would be built.

So in the last few weeks, the errors have been a breakdown in cooperation between the SMP and city officials, a tragic loss of public confidence, a hastily- and poorly-written proposition, and failure to adequate communicate to the people the advantages of the monorail.

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©2013 Robert M. Fleming Jr.

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