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Thursday, December 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

We've been monorailed to death

I never thought the word monorail could be a verb, as in, to monorail the poor taxpayer.

Yet now that Gov. Christine Gregoire has called for Seattle residents to vote on whether to replace the dangerous Alaskan Way Viaduct with an aerial rebuild or a tunnel, the best advice for Seattle government officials is: Don't monorail us.

Through four elections, Seattle voters merrily went along with a dreamy vision of a futuristic monorail line. Trouble was, proponents didn't offer real cost figures until the third vote, and those numbers turned out to be faulty.

I don't see a 14-mile monorail line from Ballard to downtown to West Seattle, do you?

Obviously, a little campaigning is fair game from the mayor and seven members of the City Council, who won't sleep until they get a tunnel. But voters are a little frazzled from campaigns that sold, and oversold, the monorail with stunning artistic renderings and fuzzy numbers.

Voters paid $225 million for the monorail and what did they get? Nada. Zip.

The viaduct question is likely headed toward a March ballot. If ever there were a moment for candor, this is it. Voters expect the mayor and the Seattle City Council to make the ballot title clear and honest. Tell us what the tunnel will cost each of us, for how long, and give a realistic assessment of build time and traffic tie-ups.

It is easy to envision a springtime campaign packed full of delightful drawings by rabid tunnel backers and YouTube-like videos showing how positively groovy the tunnel would be.

It probably would be grand, but the smartest people around say the state cannot afford this project, without taking money from every other worthy endeavor, such as replacing the Highway 520 floating bridge.

Seattle voters deserve a full and fair accounting of the price of the tunnel, and the rebuild, where they can read it: on the ballot.

The consensus seems to be that Gregoire punted on one of the most important decisions of her career when she said Seattle voters, not she, would decide which option to pursue.

I believe she picked the shortest path to having a roadway of some sort built. She is a lawyer and lawyers don't like exposure on a highway that could come tumbling down in the next big earthquake.

The governor said there isn't enough money to pay for the $4.6 billion tunnel; there will be enough for the $2.8 billion rebuild. But she can see the my-way-or-the-highway determination in Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' eyes, and similar enthusiasm on the faces of seven council members.

Gregoire knows the only higher power than the governor in this case is the voters. Only voters have the force to convince city leaders not to block the project with permit shenanigans and lawsuits that could take years to resolve.

The governor dismissed two other popular options for the roadway: a surface street and a retrofit. The popular surface street, she said, would not be able to absorb the 110,000 cars a day that use the viaduct without dumping too many cars on downtown streets and Interstate 5. The retrofit is a lousy bargain because it repairs the road for almost the same price as a full rebuild and would last only a third as long.

Seattle voters are among the most generous in the land. Seven of the past nine years, they have voted to tax themselves for improved public amenities and they may well do it again.

But Gregoire is sending a warning sign when she says that Seattle not only has to pay the $1.8 billion difference between the two projects but also has to cover cost overruns.

House Speaker Frank Chopp and House budget writer Helen Sommers, two powerful politicians who favor a rebuild and oppose a tunnel, ought to pass legislation making that clear before the public vote.

The tunnel and monorail are two different projects led by different people. OK, fair enough. Then have the guts to explain to voters what they will honestly have to pay for a tunnel. If utility rates are going up to cover part of the cost, explain that. If tolls will be placed on the tunnel, say that. If some money supposedly pledged to the project is insecure, such as millions in future federal funding, then the ballot title should explain that.

The last thing anyone in Seattle wants is another beautiful idea, oversold, under-explained and started without enough money to finish the job. Pursue your tunnel, mayor and council, but do it straight up with facts and clear information about where the money will come from, who will pay and for how long.

Don't monorail us.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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