[NWPT55]Even though I voted against it, it really bothers me to criticize the Seattle Monorail, because a) I sorta, really want it, and b) some of its most vocal opponents are vicious, lying bastards, who take great joy in scuttling any public project that doesn’t directly benefit their corporate overseers. But after seeing the SMP’s response to public criticism of the final plan’s financing and less than aesthetic design, I am underwhelmed.
The news today is about the long term interest costs to build the Monorail Green Line.
The newspaper is correct when it adds all of those future interest payments together and gets to around $11 billion. However, the value of these interest payments in 2005 dollars is closer to $1.9 billion, or roughly the same as the total cost of the Project which is just under $2 billion (in 2005 dollars). Keep in mind that most of the dollars added up and presented in the Seattle PI article will be paid 30 or 40 years into the future, when a dollar then is worth about 10 to 15 cents today.
It is similar to when someone buys a home with a 30-year mortgage and the interest payments over the 30 years end up being greater than the initial price of the home.
Well yeah, that’s kinda true… from the financial perspective of the SMP… but not for the individual taxpayers who are being asked to pay off the bonds. Presumably, the SMP will issue bonds with fixed regular payments, similar to a mortgage. So due to inflation, a fixed payment today of $100 might be worth only $0.10 in 2005 dollars, several decades hence. But individual taxpayers’ car tabs will rise with inflation along with the price of cars.
The SMP’s 1.4% car tab tax currently costs me $177.00 a year on my 4 year-old car. Due to wear and tear and changing circumstances, I expect I’ll buy several new cars over the coming decades… and each of those will be purchased in inflation-adjusted dollars. So assuming I buy a new car of similar value every 8 to 10 years, my average annual Monorail tax will remain about $177.00 in 2005 dollars. Thus, at the same time the SMP’s annual bond repayments are worth ten cents on the inflation-adjusted dollar, I’ll be paying $1770.00 a year, not $17.00.
In simple terms, if the car tab is levied for 50 years, not the originally projected 25, the Monorail will end up personally costing me about twice as much… roughly $8500 in 2005 dollars. (Though to be fair, I’ll likely be dead before the bonds are paid off, so my total bill will be somewhat less.)
And that has always been my primary complaint about the Monorail… its financing. We are asking taxpayers to ostensibly pay 1.4% of the value of their cars, every year for the rest of their lives. And I wonder… will taxpayers be willing to pony up additional revenues to fund anything else? Or, as I suspect, will the 14-mile Green Line be the only transportation project Seattle voters build over the next half-century?
The SMP’s response generated one more disappointment. They told us we have only two options:
1) We can move forward with this plan.
2) We can decide to not build the Monorail Green Line at all.
Yes I know… politically, those are likely the only two options. But there is a third, if the SMP board has the patience, fortitude and leadership to pursue it. They could pause from the rush to break ground, go back to the drawing board, and come up with a new proposal that simply makes more financial sense. Lob a few miles off one end or the other, propose a more reliable mix of financing, and give us back the sleek design that will make the Monorail an icon rather than an eyesore. Then come back to the polls for another vote if they have to, but this time with all their ducks in a row, and the fixed price contracts in hand. Sure, it could delay the project a couple more years, and they always risk losing a close vote rather than winning one. But it would be the responsible, creative thing to do given the circumstances.
As a progressive, I believe in the social benefits of public transit, and I’m willing to put my tax dollars where my mouth is. But we should only support those public projects that make sense.
It pains me to write this, because in doing so, I am not living up to my responsibility to parry the rhetorical blows of the right-wing critics who will surely paint any decision by the SMP as the ultimate in bureaucratic bungling and arrogance. The anti-transit crowd is in this battle on purely ideological grounds — they are unwilling to give an inch, and the temptation is to be just as inch-stingy in return. Indeed, if this were a national or even a state-wide issue, I would be much more reluctant to voice my reasoned opposition to a transit project I kinda, sorta want.
But this is Seattle, a bastion of progressivism, and quite frankly the political and rhetorical machinations of a handful of marginal, anti-transit blowhards shouldn’t even enter into the equation. We have the opportunity to build a 21st Century transit system, and the responsibility to build it right.
And I simply am not convinced that the current proposal is the right way to build the Monorail.