The launch of construction for the Green Line monorail, previously advertised as "on track to break ground this fall," now appears unlikely until well into 2005. The Seattle Monorail Project...

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The launch of construction for the Green Line monorail, previously advertised as “on track to break ground this fall,” now appears unlikely until well into 2005.

The Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) is taking longer than expected to reach a tentative contract deal with Cascadia Monorail Co. Cascadia submitted its bid proposal on Aug. 16 to build the line linking Ballard, downtown and West Seattle. Details of the proposal remain confidential.

SMP Executive Director Joel Horn recently said negotiations will continue into January. Even if a deal is reached that soon, the agency still must hold at least one public hearing, pass an independent financial review required by the City Council, sell bonds to investors and secure design permits from city transportation and planning departments before breaking ground.

Monorail board member Steve Williamson said talks are progressing well. He predicted a groundbreaking in the first or second quarter of next year.

The agency blames the recently defeated “Monorail Recall” Initiative 83 for the slowdown, saying Cascadia was unwilling to spend more money on technical work until the project got out of political jeopardy.

Another likely reason is that many of the SMP’s bid specifications are optional, so Cascadia is revising what monorail leaders produced over the last two years of their planning.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said board member Cleve Stockmeyer. “I think people have to understand it’s a two-way negotiation. We want a lower price and more features. They want a higher price and fewer features.”

Prolonged talks are normal, said Cascadia team executive Jeff Fielder of Fluor Enterprises, one of the lead partners.

Delays do create a risk of inflation and rising interest rates, he said. Already, steel prices have spiked since city voters approved a tax for the monorail two years ago.

Jon Magnusson, a veteran Seattle engineer who campaigned against the project this year, said with more than $1 billion worth of work awaiting, “I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t finish the process — unless they’ve got problems.”

SMP has not updated its cost estimates since 2002, saying bidders would provide a real figure. Agency spreadsheets from early 2004 indicate SMP can afford $1.3 billion for tracks, trains and stations, out of a total voter-approved limit of $1.6 billion in debt financing.

The main question isn’t price, but how the monorail will look and perform for the price.

The agency has just hired three artists to design track concepts, according to the SMP’s Dec. 4 weekly memo to board members. Those ideas will be used in the negotiations, a spokeswoman said. A fourth artist is being hired to make an inventory of salvage materials from property the agency buys for its stations.

The agency has already spent $12 million to study urban-design and station ideas, but nearly all the details proposed by Cascadia remain undisclosed. Operating issues, such as trains and passenger capacity, are also subject to negotiations.

“I’ve been in this business 27 years, doing public projects constantly,” Magnusson said. “I’ve never seen a situation like this, where the public had no idea what’s going on. They’re wrapping this in openness and transparency, but when it comes to the important things, it’s confidential.”

At least four monorail board members — Williamson, Stockmeyer, Cindi Laws and Richard Sundberg — have said that before they sign a contract, they will support a thorough public airing of its contents that goes beyond the single hearing required by state law.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or