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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Monorail - it's the people, not the project

I've noticed a few other progressive bloggers venting their frustrations about the recent actions by Mayor Nickels and the City Council to halt the monorail in its tracks.

Brian of WashBlog has a post entitled, "A tale of two Nickels" in which he accuses the mayor of having a double standard:
The recent cut and run from the Monorail by Nickels reveals a double standard by which city officials approve large sums for a central library, the South Lake Union trolley and Seattle Aquarium expansion without votes, and yet demand a vote on a voter-backed monorail for a ridiculous 5th time.
I disagree. I don't think Nickels has a double standard.

The problem with the monorail isn't the concept of the project itself. It's the people that are running it.

It's because of these people that Nickels has had to withdraw his support, and it's because of these people that we are having a fifth vote, which isn't ridiculous at all considering the circumstances.

I know the monorail has a lot of supporters. I'm not much of supporter - I'm a monorail skeptic and have been since before the 2002 vote.

I'm not a skeptic because I don't believe in monorail. I'm a skeptic because I didn't, and still don't, believe in a lot of the people who are running the show there.

Monorail backers first sparked my ire during the Initiative 776 campaign. Read this excerpt from a 2002 e-mail that one organization backing the monorail wrote me. I wrote to ask them their position on I-776, Tim Eyman's attempt to shut down Sound Transit's light rail project. I thought I was writing to an ally, fellow mass transit supporters. Instead, I got this:
[We believe] 'Sound' Transit should be building a monorail instead of a light rail system, for a slew of excellent reasons. We have even gone to federal court to force the issue, although our lawsuit was effectively dismissed on a technicality without ever reaching the merits of our case.

Thus every time we get the opportunity to say this in public, we will, and even when the ETC [Elevated Transportation Company] wins in November, we will still keep on saying it. Hopefully in the meantime the Mayor of Seattle, the City Council and the "Sound" Transit board will have agreed with us and begun acting accordingly without wasting any more precious taxpayer money on an ineffective 'train to nowhere'. Like I've heard said before, "De Nile isn't just a river in Egypt". ST [Sound Transit] needs to give up on LRT [Link Light Rail] now, not tomorrow, not next year - now.
A train to nowhere, eh? They need to give up now - not tomorrow, not next year - now. Did you read that? Monorail supporters, (if any of you are reading this) - do you feel a little jolt inside?

Ah, the irony.

Roles have been reversed. Sound Transit is the agency that's on a stable footing, while the monorail agency is on the brink of falling of the cliff and being shut down. Their "train" is the one with the problem.

You see why I'm a skeptic? It's the people! A lot of people who work at the agency and a few of the biggest supporters are simply arrogant people.

They even sued the agency to try and stop it from building light rail!

They told me smugly that monorail was the way to go. That Link was a "train to nowhere". That Sound Transit was wasting the public's money.

Why can't I say the same thing to them, then? Why shouldn't I diss the monorail? Well, I certainly could! But you know, that's not the way I feel. I like mass transit, and I don't think there's anything wrong with monorail. It has many good advantages.

What I do have a problem with is THIS project - the financing plan, which was not fiscally responsible, the proposed length of the route (it's too long - there isn't enough money to pay for the entire line) and the people running the show.

With friends like these people, who needs enemies? The monorail agency's own leaders and some supporters have been, and to some extent, still are, the project's own worst enemies.

Now, not everyone is bad. Some of the people that have been associated with the monorail project for a long time are good people (like Dick Falkenbury and Cleve Stockmeyer).

The people that are running the monorail agency are responsible for the way the project looks right now. They are responsible for the lack of a competitive bid, the unsound financing plan, and the problems.

Brian and others are frustrated at Greg Nickels - but why? This isn't his project. Nickels is not and will not be the reason for the monorail's demise.

It's people like Joel Horn and Tom Weeks (who resigned months ago) who are the reason for the monorail's woes. As Dammy Westneat noted, the "dreamers" at the agency need to wake up:
The monorail may owe its existence to dreamers, but it's the dreamers who are now derailing it.

The mayor is absolutely correct when he says the agency doesn't have enough money. The choices are clear: Drastically shorten and simplify the line, or raise taxes. Either would require voter approval.

Yet some monorail backers persist that all 14 miles can be built without going back to the voters. Now that is dreaming.
Nickels has been supportive of the monorail until the last few months, when he has put his foot down. I'm glad to see that he has.

The Seattle Popular Monorail Authority, simply put, needs a change of leadership.

Leadership can make a world of difference. Take a look at Sound Transit. An influx of new and better leadership there turned the agency around. Take Executive Director Joni Earl:
It's Earl -- now chief executive officer-- who deserves a major chunk of the credit, say most observers, for the near complete turnaround of the agency from organizational and accounting chaos and poor morale into a credible agency getting high marks from auditors and regularly rolling out new transit projects.
The Seattle Monorail Authority, if it is to be turned around, has to bring in good people. There's been a start - John Haley and Kevin Phelps have been brought in - but people like Kristina Hill have simply got to go. The monorail board needs to be almost completely overhauled.

The Seattle Monorail needs its own Joni Earl:
Down to earth, friendly, straightforward, a good listener and quick with a smile, Earl seems to have made friends everywhere she's been. Before working as deputy county executive to Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, a Democrat, for eight years she was city manager of Mill Creek and before that a Kitsap County manager.

The relationships in local government have helped her at Sound Transit -- as has her personal style.

"I've seen her turn groups of angry people into very reasonable people," says state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.

Earl has won the admiration and loyalty of the politicians on the Sound Transit board, because, after getting badly burned before, they feel they can trust information coming from Earl and her staff.

That's partly because she at times tells them things they don't want to hear.
Even Republicans have said good things about Joni Earl.

You may be reading this and thinking to yourself, "well, it's not about one person." Guess what? One person can have a huge effect on an entire organization of people:
A former Snohomish County councilman called her "something of a taskmaster" at the county. At Sound Transit, Sims says, "The quality of work has improved by light years."

Asked what kind of boss her staff would say she is, Earl says: "I think they would say I'm direct. I'm tough on the issues, but I'm not hard on people. I have pretty high expectations. ...I think they'd say I'm not very good at pausing to celebrate. I kind of move on to the next thing fast."

A program manager at Sound Transit said Earl is the best boss he's ever worked for. His first contact with her was Earl's first meeting with midlevel managers in early 2001.

"I saw her in the hall the next day. She called me by name, and that amazed me."

Earl asks the staff the tough questions she expects the board will ask, he says. "I totally credit her with the rebirth of the organization."
It's entirely reasonable that Seattle voters are being asked to vote on the project again.

Why are many people angry that the monorail isn't getting built? It apparently isn't obvious to them that the project as it is now is not feasible.

Why the anger over the fifth vote? Seattle voters were promised another vote if the line they approved in 2002 was altered. The people are being asked to approve a new version of the project.

The fifth vote is a good thing. If the voters say "yes" again to the monorail, that will be powerful ammunition to keep the project going. It was unbelievable that the monorail board thought they could get some kind of "extension" until February.

The monorail doesn't have a sound revenue base. That's part of its problem. Since there isn't really any other money out there, the only real option is to approve a scaled-down version of the project.

That's what Sound Transit ultimately had to do. And lo and behold, light rail is now under construction, and the agency worked with the Port of Seattle to figure out how to get light rail all the way to Sea-Tac Airport.

Monorail supporters, if you want any monorail to be built, you're going to have to settle for a smaller project. It's either that or no project at all.

The monorail agency wouldn't be in the position it is now if it weren't for people like Joel Horn, Tom Weeks, Kristina Hill, and others.

Horn and Weeks left the agency last July. Good riddance to them. They were a terrible drag on the project. It was a start. More people need to leave.

I believe that mass transit is good. I will support just about any kind of mass transit - bus service, commuter rail, light rail - and monorail. I will especially support mass transit options that are integrated with each other, such as Sound Transit's services.

What I won't support is an agency with bad leadership.

The monorail agency needs to be purged of all the people who have turned it into a train wreck. If the monorail agency can't transition to new and effective leadership, then it ought to be shut down.

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