Editor's note: This article, first posted on Jan. 15, 2009, is part of our year-end Best Crosscuts of 2009 series.
The revival of the Viaduct tunnel is one of the great political comeback stories of our region. After all, it was left for dead two years ago when Seattle voters turned down the idea by nearly 70 percent. The boring machine hasn’t started turning, of course, but the fact that Gov. Gregoire, County Executive Sims, and Mayor Nickels are on the same page (as opposed to three different pages when the last round of alternatives was being debated) means that the chance of real movement on this long-stalled project may be upon us.
There are many who can take credit for this outcome. One of the most central, if unrecognized, figures in this drama is Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago, chair of the council's transportation committee and an experienced dealmaker. “I wrote the script,” says the veteran lawmaker with a clear sense of confidence.
That self-assuredness seems justified. “She did the due diligence on bored tunnels and talked with the experts far sooner than any elected official,” notes Tayloe Washburn, chair of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Viaduct Stakeholders Group. Furthermore, says Washburn, himself a key player in forging the ultimate plan, “she played a very important role in developing consensus among the stakeholder members.”
Drago's behind-the-scenes effort to achieve a nearly united front for the deep bored tunnel by the time the group met for the final time in late December enabled that eclectic assembly of 29 stakeholders to find common ground. That pulled the three transportation agencies and the politicians away from preliminary proposals to build a new viaduct or to make do with existing downtown streets, an expanded I-5, and new bus service.
Drago wasn’t the only one working the group or the issue, of course. The business community (notably the Downtown Seattle Association, the Chamber, and Boeing) was a key player in this as well. But Drago was in every important meeting (many of which she convened), made some significant recommendations with respect to financing, and became an important liaison to City government when things got serious these last several months.
But there is more to Drago’s Viaduct "script" than her maneuvering. In fact, it was she who masterminded the key milestone that allowed Viaduct Planning 2.0 to even happen in the first place. Remember that quirky two-part vote in March of 2007, where voters of Seattle said “No” (to an elevated, by 57 percent) and “Hell No” (to a tunnel, by 70 percent)? Splitting it into two was a Drago idea — and it made all the difference. “Had it been a single vote, tunnel vs. elevated,” she now says, “we [tunnel supporters] would have been dead on arrival.”
The Governor mandated that Seattle vote over the options (something City leaders didn’t want to do), but failed to imagine just how clever ballot drafters could be. Drago knew voters were opposed to the more expensive tunnel (polls showed that), but she also knew they were opposed (though not as heavily) to the elevated option. A split vote would send them both down. “I presented the idea to [Deputy Mayor Tim] Ceis and it took him about two seconds before he said perfect,” remembers Drago. And perfect it was for the script she was writing. “We lived to see another day,” she says proudly.
Another day meant the chance to work quietly behind the scenes to develop a different tunnel scenario — a deep bored tunnel instead of the disruptive cut-and-cover one that had been presented up to that point. Of course, the vote (and the time out it created) allowed Viaduct supporters to regroup as well. It gave Speaker Frank Chopp time to work on and lobby for his plan for a structure with highway lanes, retail, office space, and a park on top.
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