Green Line's chief has schedule to keep
Seattle Times staff reporter
A few weeks before the Seattle monorail plan squeaked to its 877-vote win, Joel Horn was glad to explain how he would benefit from the project.
"This is my favorite stop on the entire route," Horn said at Ballard Market, where he dropped in for coffee and a pastry. On a driving tour with monorail project chairman Tom Weeks, he predicted that nearly every boarding platform will be perched atop a cafe, grocery or restaurant where he and thousands of passengers can refuel on snacks and caffeine.
Again at the Interbay QFC and at the pro-monorail Jackrabbit restaurant at Second and Madison, Horn declared, "Now this is my favorite stop."
He will need that sort of giddy enthusiasm to attempt a project as bold as the $1.75 billion Green Line from Ballard to West Seattle, the first leg of what would be the first citywide monorail on the continent.
Without Horn's effort during 12 months as technical program coordinator for the Elevated Transportation Co. — his visits to the Tokyo monorail, the meetings with potential builders, his work to write a cost plan — the Green Line wouldn't have reached the ballot. He has been rewarded with a promotion to executive director of the new Seattle Popular Monorail Authority and a salary now expected to match that of his counterpart at Sound Transit, Joni Earl, who makes $172,000 a year.
Despite his talents, some critics worry that Horn's ties to business and political elites will turn the project into a boon for them instead of preserving the dream of The People's Monorail.
Horn has made enemies over the years in two controversial, high-profile development projects. In 1998 as an agent for Wright Runstad, he arranged for Amazon.com to move into the PacMed public-hospital building on Beacon Hill over the objections of neighbors and activists who wanted the building used for social services. Horn also led the Seattle Commons campaign to build a park south of Lake Union, which could have displaced warehouses and low-cost apartments if voters hadn't rejected it.
But Horn's political pedigree isn't quite that simple.
He coordinated the 1995 "Schools First" campaign, in which voters approved $320 million to rebuild Ballard and West Seattle high schools and renovate 13 other schools. He worked on statewide Initiative 728 to reduce class sizes, and he co-chaired an affordable-housing task force for former Mayor Paul Schell.
Horn was also Schell's campaign treasurer, and his fund-raising savvy is one reason the monorail campaign attracted more than $400,000, including donations from Paul Allen's Vulcan, Inc., the Westin Hotel, Samis Land Co. and construction firms.
Cleve Stockmeyer, an attorney and monorail activist, said, "What the monorail proponents should understand is it's OK to have some of the movers and shakers with you. It's OK to have power; it's OK to win; it's OK to build something. You can't get there with grass roots alone. You need sharp financial minds. You need engineers. You need contractors."
Horn is assembling his project team at a pace his friends think will revive the city's can-do spirit.
"It will be built," said Blair Butterworth, a political strategist for the monorail campaign who now advises one of the prospective construction teams. "I have no doubt it will be built. I have no doubt it will be done on budget. I have no doubt that if he possibly can do it, he will do it with enough money left over to get to Northgate."
Long hours, high energy
Horn, a 47-year-old resident of Phinney Ridge, rises at 5 a.m. each weekday in a bedroom that looks west over the northern three miles of the monorail route. He and his wife, environmental writer Susan McGrath, converse over breakfast while their two children, 15-year-old Ruby and 12-year-old Max, are still asleep.
An Ohio native, Horn says he fell in love with Seattle during a motorcycle trip in 1976 while still a student. After graduating from college in Maine, he worked here briefly, earned a master's degree in business from Stanford and took a job with the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.
He first noticed Susan while she was jogging near a Washington, D.C., park in May 1983. Horn told his buddies in a carpool, "I want to marry that woman."
It turned out they had mutual acquaintances and soon were introduced at a volleyball game. "Joel proposed to me the first time I met him, and the second time, and the third time," McGrath recalls. They have been married 18 years.
Horn works 12 to 16 hours a day on the monorail. His wife says he would be labeled hyperactive if he were a schoolboy.
Matthew Fox, a University District activist who led the anti-Commons campaign but supports the monorail, says Horn seems supernaturally peppy. "Most people would acknowledge that Joel is a pretty good schmoozer. Joel is very persistent."
During the Commons effort, Horn's wife remembers seeing the opposition bumper stickers that said Joel Go Home, and thinking they ought to have said Joel, Come Home.
The Commons plan included a local monorail loop, so Horn examined the undersides of monorail trains at Seattle Center. He also met Weeks, then a city councilman from West Seattle. After the measure lost, Horn donated leftover signs to cabbie Dick Falkenbury, who used the plywood to build petition kiosks for the first of three winning monorail initiatives.
On a typical weekday, Horn works over the cellphone or his BlackBerry handheld computer while he rides the No. 5 bus downtown. A staff meeting begins at 7:30 a.m., and latecomers are fined $1 per minute. The lesson he takes from Sound Transit is that quickness means everything.
To reinforce the mindset that the monorail will be built on time and under budget, Horn tracks elapsed time during meetings, saying for instance, "We are now 38 minutes under schedule." The public Web site, www.elevated.org, declares "1,811 days until Opening Day, December 15, 2007."
Horn wears unscuffed leather hiking boots and keeps his shirtsleeves rolled up one fold. His black chest hair peeks over a button. He paces the office while tethered to the telephone by a 25-foot extension cord, and he shares his work space with two employees, to eliminate the seconds wasted moving from room to room.
He returns home for dinner around 6:30 p.m. and often reverts to monorail business after the kids go to bed.
"It's not work," he says, because the project inspires him.
A technophile, he carried a holstered cellphone during the Commons campaign, years before they were commonplace. In the past year he sent more than 20,000 monorail e-mails. (That led to an accusation of ethical lapses when opponent Henry Aronson discovered that Horn deleted e-mails daily instead of retaining them as public records. Horn says he saves them now.)
He used to read science fiction for an hour a night, but his schedule has cut that to a few paragraphs. He is trading his Subaru Outback for a low-emission Toyota Prius hybrid.
Last month, Susan shared her thoughts on global warming during one of their pre-dawn chats, and afterward, Horn told prospective monorail design firms to consider pollution reduction in their project proposals.
'A good deal of controversy'
On Nov. 15, the day the monorail board promoted Horn, Falkenbury said:
"I've become surprisingly, in my view, fond of Joel. ... One thing I'm impressed with is your self-knowledge, and you know you're bringing a good deal of controversy. And having worked closely with you the last two years, I think it will actually help you, because I think you're going to want to overcome that."
Horn's PacMed deal in 1998 enabled Wright Runstad to pay $8 a square foot for mostly vacant space in the PacMed building, then rent it to Amazon for $26 per square foot. Political allies of Schell's were involved in the talks, and the lease was approved with minimal city and public oversight.
Afterward, two neighbors who walked onto the property to protest the removal of large trees were arrested and jailed.
Feelings also remain raw from the Commons proposal, which housing advocates said would have threatened 650 to 750 affordable units.
To calm critics, Horn would "make promises to everyone about what the Commons could do for the area, promises that could never in a million years be kept," claims John Fox, of the Seattle Displacement Coalition. Still, Fox does give Horn credit for protecting The Brewster, a brick apartment house on John Street.
"He found his way into the hearts of the downtown establishment, the corporate liberal establishment," Fox said. "He has managed to finagle jobs to function on behalf of those interests. So it sends shivers down my spine to see him heading the monorail, which was a grass-roots effort."
Horn said he is too focused on building a monorail to dwell on old controversies.
"I'm proud of the Commons, proud of my work for the schools, proud of keeping Amazon in the city," he said.
All of the projects are part of Horn's vision of "one large urban campus called Seattle," where people can commute and recreate without a car.
John Fox said he's troubled that Horn and the monorail campaign have ignored the question of whether the project will cause expensive redevelopment that drives working people away from affordable areas in Ballard.
Horn says he is bothered by the accusation that the Green Line could displace moderate-income residents. He hopes the monorail can save families the expense of owning a car — $6,000 a year, he said, citing a recent estimate. New zoning could allow townhomes without parking garages, cutting their prices significantly, he said. In Interbay, the Northwest Center for the Retarded has suggested building affordable housing at a station.
It was Horn who advocated a monorail tax based on motor-vehicle value, instead of opting for a less-noticeable property tax on housing. "That was a responsive comment, and kind of caring," says Stockmeyer.
Since the election, Horn's feverish pace has caused some decisions to be rubber-stamped.
Two Mondays ago the board voted to employ a contracting method in which the construction team also operates the trains — to give an incentive to build it right. Monorail planners had discussed the idea before, but the concept remains a novel one. When board member Marie Groark tried to ask for detailed data on how the "design-build-operate-maintain" system is working elsewhere, Horn reassured the board he hadn't heard of any problems, and Groark was overwhelmed in an 8-1 vote.
"Joel is drunk with confidence that he is right," observed Stephen Spoonamore, who seeks appointment by the City Council to the monorail board and has denounced the Green Line segment in West Seattle, favoring a regional park-and-ride station near Boeing Field
Former monorail staffer Michael Taylor, who opposed Horn's instant promotion, nonetheless says Horn is eager to hear outside opinions. After the election, Horn went out for beer, pizza and a peek under the old monorail trains with members of an online chat group — the movement's populist wing.
He has shown some independence from political pals. Although his friend Schell was part of the NBBJ architectural firm's proposed team to design the monorail, the company was bypassed in favor of Vancouver-based VIA Suzuki, which emphasized public participation.
A chat with developers
Two weeks after his promotion, Horn is paying a visit to developers Frank Stagen and Kevin Daniels of Nitze-Stagen, who restored historic Union Station and are the landlords for Starbucks Center.
"I wish you a lot of luck," the avuncular Stagen says over coffee. "This is a great chance to create a legacy and leave something for the community."
The developers take a few swipes at Sound Transit and show off their painting, by railroad artist Craig Thorpe of Bellevue, of a monorail soaring over commuter trains at King Street station. Horn sketches potential SoDo routes on a whiteboard while his hosts warn that easements to cross Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad property will not be as forthcoming as Horn thinks.
Then the nitty-gritty.
Horn has been pondering whether the station belongs next to Starbucks Center, or at Third and Lander next to the new school-district headquarters, or in between. Before the meeting, he mentioned that the monorail, as a public project, ought to help educators and parents use their public-school facility and not merely boost land values for developers.
But there is far more traffic around Starbucks Center.
"Just keep in mind that this has 5,000 employees a day and 5,000 to 10,000 people visiting," Daniels says, "and only 500 over there. The voters voted to move people, not to pacify ... ."
As the meeting breaks up, Daniels provides a word of wisdom:
"Just do as well for us the taxpayers as you did for Wright Runstad, and we'll all do great."
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com.