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Friday, November 18, 2005

Here’s what Dick Falkenbury Thinks

Posted by on November 18 at 15:23 PM

Dick Falkenbury, the taxi driver who dreamed up the original monorail idea that voters approved back in 1997, dropped off this essay at the Stranger offices:

So who fucked up my monorail?

The monorail is an idea so pure and simple that it makes your heart ache to see it so screwed up.

Of course, one’s first thoughts turn to conspiracy like when a lover leaves or the power goes out or your team looses. It was the Power Mad Politicians and the Pro Light Rail Folks with maybe Paul Allen holding their coats. The Media and the Bond Sellers from Wall Street got together n the men’s room of the Bank of America and killed the beloved monorail.

I’ve met a lot of these people and they aren’t smart enough to pull off shoplifting a cigar from a blind storekeeper.

No, I’m afraid that this was an inside job. The staff, with the deaf and dumb board of the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) cheering them on, killed the monorail—unintentionally—but dead nonetheless.

And when I speak of `staff' in the context of the monorail, let me be clear that I mean Joel Horn, for he ran that staff the same way that Moses ran the Israelites but without the happy ending. (There is talk that Tom Weeks as Chair of the Monorail Board played a hand in this. Weeks was to Engels as Horn was to Marx. They were joined at the hip and you couldn't slip a bus transfer between the two of them.)

What Horn did was pad the final contract. The proposed costs of construction were completely out of line. A few examples of the waste that was written into the final contract:

--The power bar (the quarter inch thick, inch wide copper strip sheathed in steel attached to the side of the concrete rail) that now costs the current monorail about $2 foot, was contracted out at $425 per foot.

--It would cost $150,000 for each column foundation (not including the costs of utility relocation—that's extra).

--The `crossheads'—the piece of concrete that forms the "Tā€¯ at the top of the columns was listed as costing over $70,000 each.

I went through the four hundred pages "Volume Eā€¯ which contained the pricing information. In nearly every case, the numbers were astoundingly high.

But as bad as all of that was, it was not as bad as the part of the contract that dealt with `operations and maintenance'. Once the money is wasted in building, it is over and done with, but money wasted in `operations and maintenance' goes on and on. If someone ever offers you the choice of giving you a car or paying for the operation (gas, insurance, fixing it and so on), take the later. Every time. The costs of operating the monorail is always going to be higher than building it, because it doesn't end.

The proposed contract called for some truly baffling expenses for operation and maintenance:

--There were to be 34 full time Class-A Repair Technicians on for 13 monorails. They would be on staff from the first day of operation (presumably, all 13 trains would be absolute lemons).

--There were 20 cleaners for 19 stations and the trans, or about one cleaner for every 3,000 square feet. Put another way, each cleaner would have about 12 minutes to clean each square foot.

--There would be 39 Station Attendants to watch over the stations. In addition, there were four wandering attendants just in case someone had trouble watching over a station.

--There were going to be 8 fully staffed and equipped repair trucks for the thirteen trains.

The staffing for the monorail was 150 people to watch over 13 trains.

What all of this means was that the monorail wouldn't break even—ever. And that in turn means that you couldn't begin to pay off the bonds for the first years—you have to pay for the operations with the money that should have gone to pay off the bonds. So the interest on those bonds is put off and added to the principal. It is like renting one house and buying another—except that you add the payments on the second house back onto the mortgage to be paid even later.

So why did Joel Horn pad the contract so badly? What is in it for him? Did he secretly want to kill the monorail? Is he some member of an Evil Cabal that wanted to kill the only transit that can really work?

I don't think so. I think that Joel Horn wanted to pad the contract to give the builders huge profits and give the unions a lot of jobs. The people who benefit from this contract would then form a political juggernaut that cannot be stopped. He took this idea from Sound Transit. Sound Transit has screwed things up even worse than the monorail and yet, they keep going and going and going. They have so much money riding on the light rail that there is no way to derail it. There are so many jobs associated with building and running the Sound Transit vehicles that no politician in their right mind would think of killing it.

Simply put, Joel Horn gave the builders and the contractors huge amounts of money so that they could make a lot of money. Profits are always spoken of in terms of `percentage of gross'; the higher the gross, the bigger the profit. The bigger the contract, the bigger the profit. And then, he made sure that there were enough jobs—more than enough—so that the unions would be happy. By doing these things, Horn hoped to build a political machine that could not be stopped.

He almost succeeded.

If The Stranger hadn't published the 11 billion dollar figure—the total costs, including interest payments, I doubt if anyone would have noticed. Horn carefully made sure that the all-important Volume E never saw the light of day. Volume E is the part of the contract that spelled out the cost and the staffing levels. Don't bother going to the website where most of the other 40,000 pages of contract are available with a click of the mouse. Volume E is not up on the web. The reason given to me is "there was no electronic form of Volume E.ā€¯ I assume that means that it was typed up on a manual typewriter. Even that excuse is thin: they could scan the damn thing. Volume E is only available at the Central Library and in the SMP library—neither copy can leave (I have a copy only because Mark Early—a monorail supporter—took the time, effort and money to put the pages through the library copier one-at-a-time).

I am pretty sure that no one on the SMP Board took a look at Volume E. The copies look clean and untouched. When I asked some of them about the pricing and staffing, they made it clear that hey hadn't any idea of what I was talking about. They are concerned about the costs, but they don't have the details that would have allowed them to fight for a fairer contract.

So the monorail, an elevated, safe and efficient public transit for Seattle is dead—for now.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Light rail will screw up. Sound Transit has screwed up before and even thought they tell you that they have changed their culture, they will screw up again. It is not because they are evil but they have assigned themselves an impossible job; use the bus tunnel for trains. They will reconfigure and change the tunnel and it won't work. The turn at Third and Pine will be a disaster, the lowering of the station floors is fraught with danger and even if that all works, the dip under the old freight tunnel at the south end of the tunnel will never allow trains through.

If that isn't bad enough, the tunnel under Beacon Hill won't work either.

About a year from now, Sound Transit will announce that they are having problems, but a little more time and a little more money will see them through. Then, about three years from now, they will announce that things are going really bad. They have to go back to the drawing board.

Then, the citizens will turn back and say, "Let's have another look at the monorail.ā€¯ The good news is, we can use Sound Transit's money to build the monorail.