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Originally published Wednesday, July 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Constructive advice for the monorail board

As a strong proponent of mass transit, the Municipal League is saddened by the current problems of the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP). The league is concerned...

Special to The Times

AS a strong proponent of mass transit, the Municipal League is saddened by the current problems of the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP). The league is concerned about the project's governance structure, cost estimates, ridership projections and other issues. We have tried to interest the SMP board in resolving these problems. Unfortunately, to date, the SMP board has not responded constructively.

Because the Municipal League's mission is to promote good government, our focus has naturally been on the governance aspects of the SMP, and here's what we have observed:

The SMP structure does not lead to adequate accountability to the voters and to the public. Because the majority of its board is appointed rather than elected, most board members did not regularly face voters and became insular and insufficiently responsive to the public. At times, some board members seemed uninformed on important matters.

Unlike other public agencies, SMP doesn't have sufficient checks and balances. Many problems could have been avoided had SMP received the independent scrutiny that other public transit agencies regularly receive. Ongoing formal citizen and expert review is absolutely vital to an agency with a largely non-elected board. The City Council's pending financial analysis, the only meaningful review SMP faces, is essential but insufficient standing alone.

SMP never had adequate transparency. The agency was unwilling to engage in an open and frank dialogue with the public or to provide timely information on important points. For instance, a draft finance plan should have been discussed publicly so that agency assumptions about public views on debt financing could be tested and the plan corrected accordingly. And too often, citizen concerns were dismissed as coming from "opponents," a practice that regrettably still goes on today. A public agency, unlike private entities, may not withhold information and may not choose to whom it will respond.

In the spirit of moving ahead constructively, the Municipal League recommends the following:

• SMP must utilize citizen oversight, independent expert review, and other checks and balances. The first step should be the City Council's review of the Cascadia contract, assessing its financial viability and conformance to the project promised in the 2002 ballot measure on such matters as ridership, revenue and service.

• SMP must change agency culture. SMP must acknowledge its problems openly, and increase its willingness to learn from experienced transit agencies and professionals. Being subject to Seattle's Ethics Code would also help. The SMP action plan, adopted by its board on July 20, holds the promise of opening the agency to advice from outside experts. Time will tell.

• SMP must commit to sharing all information openly with citizens and the media, whether positive or negative. The only exception is confidentiality mandated by statute.

• New governance is needed. If SMP moves ahead with the project, we recommend that elected officials should directly govern it, regardless of whether the SMP remains an independent agency. Serious consideration should be given to merging or contracting with an experienced entity such as Sound Transit, Metro or the city of Seattle, all governed by officials accountable to voters. These changes would require amending the enabling legislation.

• Improve regional collaboration. A merger or contracting relationship presents an opportunity to negotiate larger issues such as improved interconnections among various kinds of transportation in our region, and consolidated planning and funding. These issues are not currently a priority with SMP.

• Bring new perspectives to the discussion of governance. The Municipal League is ready to work with others, including the SMP board, to analyze alternatives and identify the best solutions for governance change. The SMP board lacks the objectivity to make this decision itself.

All possible avenues of operational improvement and cost reduction should be aggressively pursued. The public should be given ample opportunity to approve project taxes and to determine whether the benefits of the revised project are worth the proposed costs. If an acceptable project cannot be designed that meets this bottom line, the effort should be abandoned.

However, by working together in the crucial months ahead, we may be able to find a cost-effective solution for the troubled monorail project.

Bob Klein, left, chairs the Municipal League Monorail Committee. Lucy Steers, right, chairs the league's Issues Committee. The Municipal League and Town Hall are planning an Aug. 11 monorail forum (www.munileague.org for information).

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