Don't dismantle the SMP

As an ex-officio board member of the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP), I write not as an apologist or as a cheer-leader for the oard, but rather as one who has had con-cerns about SMP op-erations and gov-ernance in the past, but who strongly believes in building the Monorail in Seattle - if it can be done right.

Recently, some opponents have requested that Gov. Gregoire call a special session of the Washington State Legislature to close the SMP.

They claim the project threatens the state's bond rating and is mired in cost overruns, even though construction hasn't begun and a fixed-price contract has been negotiated. They say state intervention would be a dramatic, symbolic step toward restoring statewide public confidence and help defeat I-912, the initiative to repeal the gas tax on the November ballot. They also advocate switching the SMP's Motor Vehicle Excise Tax to fund the Viaduct and other regional transportation needs.

While I support the eventual integration of the SMP into a regional transportation system, I do not believe the Legislature should close down the SMP. This would not guarantee that voters would approve using the MVET for other purposes. But if done right, the Monorail will provide Seattleites with a safe, modern, environmentally friendly rapid-transit alternative to roads.

As this long, hot summer of gas-price discontent should make painfully clear, we need such alternatives. And with the Viaduct construction looming ahead, the Monorail will be critical to moving people in and out of West Seattle, Queen Anne, Magnolia, Interbay, Ballard and through the downtown area. Seattle needs this rapid transit alternative.

Recent attacks on the competence of the SMP board are misguided. The board members come from strong, diverse backgrounds, including transit management, architecture, academia, business, law, labor and government.

Three months ago, the board rejected a proposed financial plan that lacked viability. While public attention has focused on the rejected plan and the ensuing resignations of the board chair and SMP executive director, the board itself has purposefully moved on - charting a new course, thoughtfully, objectively and thoroughly analyzing all options, including a recommendation to the voters to close the project if that appears necessary.

Specifically, the board has identified a "Triple Track" of options for final action. The board has already set out to pursue the first option of reworking the financing plan. Any alternative plan will likely require renegotiating the contract scope with Cascadia to design, build, maintain and operate the Green Line.

A second option is re-procurement: reopening the contract to a new round of bids, potentially more competitive than the current $2.1-billion Cascadia offer. The board is closely examining and assessing this alternative.

The third option is a citywide revote on reconfiguring the 14-mile route approved by the voters in November 2002, and/or asking approval to generate additional funds.

The SMP board is moving toward formulating the specific way forward by Sept. 15 to meet Mayor Nickel's deadline.

We've already taken concrete steps. After conducting an exhaustive national search that produced 16 highly qualified candidates, the board appointed John Haley as interim executive director for the agency, bringing his extensive and broad transportation and transit experience to bear on the current challenges. Haley served as general manager at the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and led efforts to develop and implement plans for reopening the shut-down monorail lines in Las Vegas and Newark. He also held executive positions with the Port Authority of New York, the New Jersey Transportation Commission and Bay Area Rapid Transit in California.

The board also named an independent financial policy analyst to help rework the financing plan - Kevin Phelps, credited with turning around Sound Transit - and formed a Technical Peer Review Group to scrutinize the Cascadia contract documents and counsel the board accordingly. The Technical Peer Review Group consists of three top transportation industry experts: John Eastman, former project director on Vancouver, B.C.'s Sky Train Millennium Line and construction manager on the Expo Line; Don Irwin, whose more than 30 years of experience includes several major capital-improvement transit projects; and Jen Liew, who served as project director on electrical and mechanical scope for the Kuala Lumpur mono-rail system.

The Monorail's challenges in many ways mirror those that threatened the creation and continuation of other major projects in our region that were ultimately successful: Sound Transit, the Seattle Center (including the present Seattle monorail), the Kingdome and the 520 and I-90 floating bridges. Like such projects, SMP should be given every reasonable opportunity to work through difficulties and succeed. We need the added overall capacity the Monorail will bring without adding to the traffic congestion that's already choking our roads and highways.

What we don't need is for the state Legislature to short-circuit a highly worthwhile local project that is in the process of determining a resolution that will work for the people of Seattle.[[In-content Ad]]