New Monorail Idea: Save the Old One
Seattle PI - 8/6/03  Falkenbury Wants to Recycle Old Monorail

Seattle Monorail Project Update

The Seattle Monorail Project has announced that their tax revenues are not coming in as robustly as expected. In plain language, the car tabs' tax is not what they counted on to pay for the borrowing of $1.29 billion to build the Green Line from north Ballard to West Seattle.

There are three solutions:

The first is to raise more tax money and that should be the last alternative considered--in fact, it shouldn't be considered at all.

The second is to reduce costs of the entire project. The good news is that, in coming up with the original estimate, the Seattle Monorail Project over-estimated all of its costs. They wanted to avoid the trap that Sound Transit fell into. Sound Transit had assumed that everything would be the 'best case scenario'. Seattle Monorail Project assumed the opposite; everything would go wrong and cost more. The SMP assumed that the inflation rate would be 2.5%--it is about 0.9% or one-third of their estimate. In nearly every line item within the budget, they put the highest figure possible. Whether this 'assuming the worst' is enough to make up the difference between what they budgeted and what the revenue can pay for remains to be seen.

A monorail is a system that was conceived as a way to get through a city without tearing the urban fabric with the smallest imprint on the landscape of any large transit scheme. The original World's Fair monorail went one mile without removing a single building, and it was constructed in less than a year. By returning to the roots of the monorail idea, the SMP could realize savings -- huge savings.

The third is to increase revenues from sources other than taxes. It can be done, but the agency must embrace this idea with full-fervor and quickly.

The SeaTac airport has thirty-five million visitors per year. These visitors buy $350 million worth of goods and services while in the airport (this $350 million does not include parking); the SeaTac airport gets 15% of this. The SMP is conservatively predicting 20 million passengers per year. If the SMP generates sales like the airport, they could see gross revenues of $200 million and they keep $30 million a year--which more than makes up the revenue shortfall from the car tabs. (Yes, airport visitors are different than transit users but I believe that there are many possibilities to sell goods and services to the monorail customers.)

Monorail passengers will want things like coffee, videos, dry cleaning and phones. There are chances for advertising, fiber optic attached to the catwalk and who knows what else. And that is the point: the Seattle Monorail Project should actually begin selling to retail business now -- even before construction begins. Imagine the message it would send if the SMP was actually making money even before it was built--even if the amount of money would be small. It would send a message that this is a new type of government transit agency.

Before the Seattle Monorail Project goes to the voters and ask for more, I would urge them to shave the costs at the one end and seek revenues from other sources at the other.

-- Dick Falkenbury

You can contact Dick at [email protected]

Dick Falkenbury for Seattle | 2518 South Brandon Court, Seattle, Washington 98108