Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Going Off the Rails in Seattle

Approved by voters (80% Democrat) who can never resist taxing themselves into bankruptcy for mass transit:

The Seattle Monorail Project released details of a contract yesterday to build an elevated train from Ballard to West Seattle by Dec. 1, 2010, and disclosed that the car-tab tax being used to pay for the system is expected to continue until 2050.

....the tax will last nearly twice as long as originally predicted.

....the City Council must affirm that SMP can pay for the line and the first five years of operation. The council has hired independent experts who have 30 days to study the project, then the council can take up to 30 days more for its decision.

"Wow," City Councilman Richard Conlin said when told of the plan to collect the car-tab tax for 45 more years. "It seems like an awful long time to be paying for a single project."

The project's $2.1 billion cost is an increase of more than 20 percent from the $1.75 billion price advertised when voters approved the line.

....SMP is now trying to pay for the deal by stretching out its debt repayments.

A new cash-flow plan last night showed the agency selling $300 million in short-term debt called "commercial paper" over the next two years, and $1.9 billion in bonds through 2014.

SMP Finance Director Jonathan Buchter said the finance plan includes some bonds that would pay 7 or 8 percent interest.

....Richard Borkowski, a backer of rival light-rail technology, said there isn't enough money in Seattle for both monorail and Sound Transit's light-rail system. "I don't believe you can build a project that's 20 percent over budget with 30 percent less money," he said, adding that SMP is on "a glide path toward bankruptcy."

Taxes would go beyond 2050 if the agency misses its estimate of 6.1 percent yearly growth in tax revenues, new figures show. Or, rapid growth could pay the debt off sooner.

....SMP is buying 13 trains, enough to run them eight minutes apart at rush hour, 10 minutes apart at other times and less frequently at night. That's not as frequent as the three to six minutes promised earlier.

....Three of the planned 19 stations will not be ready opening day: at Elliott Avenue West serving lower Queen Anne Hill; at Madison Street downtown; and the Avalon Way station next to West Seattle Stadium. The Madison station requires buying federally owned land that isn't available yet, while the other two were delayed to save money.

....The oval support columns would be bulkier than officials had promised.

....Three years ago, monorail planners said columns would be as lean as 3 feet. ....

A few spots would have bigger columns — 6 feet, 9 inches by 4 feet, 9 inches....

The agency is already taking criticism for its fast-track public-hearing schedule.

"Nine months of private negotiation, 15 days for public review," said Crown Hill resident Mike Schuh, who criticized the agency for having its public hearings in a holiday week.

Transportation by rail in American cities dates to the 19th century, when it was discovered that horses had an easier time pulling streetcars that ran on them.

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