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Best of 2009: How Jan Drago dragooned a Viaduct solution

After 15 years on the City Council, Jan Drago is bringing home some big, complex transportation projects. Here's how she does it.
Seattle City Council member Jan Drago.

Seattle City Council member Jan Drago. None

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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Posted Fri, Jan 16, 7:27 a.m. Inappropriate

As for the Deep Bored Tunnel happening, until all the numbers are in, funding approved by all members of the "Collaboration" , stopping the Southern demolition to avoid interim disruption and Retrofitting the complete Viaduct so it can last, at least, as long as it takes to open the supposed Tunnel, Don't count your chickens.

There are several senarios that could be catastrophic:

An earthquake before the Retrofitting

Long delays in completion of the Tunnel and demolishing the Viaduct in 2012 without it being Retrofitted.

Demolishing the Southern mile, tearing down the balance of the Viaduct before the Tunnel is complete.

I could go on.

Jan, don't count your chickens.


Posted Fri, Jan 16, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

But where is Drago on another important transportation project that has been largely ignored: bringing back Seattle's cable cars? How are we supposed to navigate the hills of downtown? Not in a streetcar. One could have a coronary. And think of the economic benefits -- we would compete much better with SF for convention and tourist dollars, and have more reason to expand the convention center.

Posted Fri, Jan 16, 9:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Nick Licata: “Jan doesn’t seem concerned with the bottom line, which is ironic given that she has a business background.”

I'm sure it seems ironic to you, Nick, given your utter lack of business sense, but as it turns out, there are aspects of economics that Marx and Engells overlooked.

Take any successful business endeavor, and how did it get started? Investment. Be it sweat, 80 hour weeks, or millions in venture capital, no profitable enterprise starts without investment. True of businesses and public infrastructure.

You see, money invested in the tunnel doesn't evaporate into nothing or line the pockets of the rich. It brings immediate returns in the form of paychecks for construction workers, and lasting returns in the form of gas dollars saved, lower freight costs, faster travel times, stabilized property values in West Seattle, and (heavily taxed) dollars from tourists drawn to the waterfront.

There's your bottom line.


Posted Fri, Jan 16, 9:36 a.m. Inappropriate

I'd suggest two cable cars:

1. Extend the planned LQA route up Queen Anne Ave. It could be a streetcar, but attach to a cable system for the hill. Obviously it would need a long series of braking redundancies.

2. Madison from waterfront (near ferry terminal) to Swedish or Seattle U. Straight up the hill. It would be for Downtown workers more than light rail riders.

I'm not sure tourism would be big.


Posted Fri, Jan 16, 10:54 a.m. Inappropriate

Jan deserves some credit for the bored tunnel solution, no question, but it wasn't really any kind of coordinated plan on her (or anybody else's) part. This is evident in how the bored tunnel option was dealt with by the DOT project team. It was reluctantly studied, never properly developed, and way over-priced to take it out of consideration.

Ultimately, the reason the bored tunnel emerged as the winner was because it was the best solution, as radical a concept as that may seem.


Posted Fri, Jan 16, 11:23 a.m. Inappropriate

It is also the first graded decision in the lot. Even as Art says it's still a long way out of these woods, a graded decision gives back the waterfront and does not preclude the I-5/street grid solution that on its own requires cold turkey abandonment of auto orientation.

Moon's asking for the moon to expect us to go cold turkey no net. Nevertheless she is accurate: Traffic Calming (not traffic circles) proves itself over and over ever since Australian freeway fighters invented it years ago. Pretty pricey training wheels though.

One last problem: the cart is still before the horse. Please, please we need effective transit carrots ahead of the tolling sticks. In a few days, electeds may well tumble to applying this new notion of selling zoning to the new waterfront. Hold your hats folks.


Posted Fri, Jan 16, 11:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Let's look to Frank Chopp and a local Seattle initiative to once and for all KILL the tunnel. A 2 lane each way double deck tunnel over 2 miles long under 1st Ave. is a laughingstock. Let's stop it NOW!!


Posted Fri, Jan 16, 2:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Um Sean, when Councilmember Licata was discussing the "bottom line", I suspect he meant the inconvenient fact that there is a shortfall of over $1 billion dollars for the tunnel.

Moving forward (and spending oodles of money) with an option for which there isn't adequate funding is neither good governance nor good business sense.

Posted Fri, Jan 16, 5:32 p.m. Inappropriate

...another thought on the bottom line - $200 million (which the City also doesn't have) for a Mercer Street beautification project which will make traffic demonstrably worse doesn't pass the straight face cost/benefit test, either.

(and as a historical aside - it was Councilmember Jan Drago who actually said for the record that the Council was making a policy decision to live with the Mercer corridor "as-is" when it voted to sell the former Bay Freeway properties to Paul Allen/Vulcan).

Posted Fri, Jan 16, 6:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I’m not sure if the author is celebrating or indicting Drago. To dragoon is to “compel by coercion, threats, or crude means.” Why would anyone brag about being the brains behind the “nonsense vote” several years ago designed to obfuscate the issues and confuse voters about a viaduct solution? Isn’t that a form of malicious mischief considering that it cost tax payers a million dollars? Drago is a poster child for a certain type of public servant who is totally in the pocket of special interests and doesn’t care who knows it. She also seems to have cornered the market on bad ideas. The article identifies several additional multimillion dollar projects that she seems to have infected which is even more alarming. Anyone who connived to push this mutant viaduct solution forward should be voted out of office. The majority of voters have always preferred the retrofit or rebuild of the viaduct as one of the few north / south arterials in the city that actually works. Drago’s quotes from the article seem to confirm all of this.

It’s too bad that elected officials whose leadership doesn’t pass the do no harm test aren’t held responsible for the damage that they do. The one positive aspect of this recent sleight of hand viaduct scam is that this time the usual suspects are crowing like roosters about their part in it. So put the articles up on your fridge as a reminder of who to vote out next election. We just got rid of one of the worst special interest flaks who ever sat in the oval office, and we shouldn't have to put up with them here.


Posted Fri, Jan 16, 7:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Is there a transportation project yet that Drago has been involved with that actually had funding in place for the entire project?

BTW, The first avenue streetcar ends at Seattle Center, how's that hotel tax looking?

Mr Baker

Posted Sat, Jan 17, 6:39 a.m. Inappropriate

If it's about jobs, there are a lot of other projects in Seattle that would produce more jobs per dollar. The tunnel will be bored by a machine that is notable for the few workers it requires. Licata can be criticized for many things, but such a specious attack is ridiculous.


Posted Sat, Jan 17, 8:29 a.m. Inappropriate

If any of the viaduct plan is about jobs it is liminged in scope, the variety of jobs lost does not completely match what this project provides.
Buying a streetcar, and a couple months of putting down track, the tunnel, moving utilities.

Mr Baker

Posted Sat, Jan 17, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

With the commercial buildings taking a dive not all of those workers would fit the viaduct project, or many of the stimulus plans that call for roads and bridges. Updating public building should pick up a lot of them, heating, air, wire. There is a lag, though, the drop off in commercial buildings being built and the current projects.
After the stimulus, on the other end, I now think the convention center and parts of the Seattle Center remake could keep the stimulus plan from ending abruptly and just dump a bunch of workers 2- 3-4 years from now. A rebound in the economy will not jump back up at the rate of the fall.

Mr Baker

Posted Sat, Jan 17, 4:33 p.m. Inappropriate

To suggest that the two-option vote has anything to do with this one is a misread at best.

Voters said no to two options that would have involved massive construction mess and disruption for many years. Put either against the quick, low-disruption plan we have today, and that's why the general public seems to like this decision.

If the blowhard initiative makes the ballot, the pro-tunnel crowd, including me, will have a field day. The public has been given an arthroscopic surgery option. The initiative proposes radical surgery, followed by a permanent scar. Supporters of traffic flow, truck flow, transit, aesthetics, pedstrians, and Alskan Way businesses all getting either what they've dreamed of or at least a decent compromise, the only constituencies left are the moronic "view while driving" crowd, some businesses in Interbay whose truck will be on surface streets a little more, and anti-spending people.

For many of us, the aesthetics and Downtown functionality are plenty to justify the cost of the difference. If they weren't, avoiding the construction nightmare for most of a decade (which would be felt by our economy btw) would be plenty. And we certainly don't want to turn our surface streets into highways as would happen if the dilusional surface-option crowd got their way.


Posted Sat, Jan 17, 4:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle voters rejected both the elevated rebuild and a cut-and-cover tunnel along the viaduct corridor. The new compromise gives them a completely different package: the surface option plus a deep-bore tunnel on a different alignment. The will of the people has been implemented.


Posted Sun, Jan 18, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

There was a little known 10th option to use two smaller tunnels as pneumatic tubes.

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Jan 18, 9:37 a.m. Inappropriate

I guess what Licata does could be called populism in contrast to Drago, though this is an isolated comparison. Jan is Vulcan's champion, and Nick is the wine bar/public art champion, both competing to tax me, the guy that wants neither.

Downtown has two champions competing at the expense of anybody that does not live near a sculpture park and streetcar line.

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Jan 18, 9:43 a.m. Inappropriate

The argument that 'any' tunnel costs too much, or too much more replacement viaduct is false. The value of the Waterfront property in taxes and revenue generating potential cannot reached with another viaduct. Any cost savings result in far more losses.

The argument about insufficient capacity with the Deep-Bore tunnel is false. The Deep-Bore tunnel will only handle Aurora-bound traffic, currently about 63,000 vehicles, not too many for four lanes.

The more crucial considerations are:

-- Actual viability of the Deep-Bore, as yet unproven.
-- The inherent safety hazard with the Deep-Bore.
-- The lack of access for Ballard-bound traffic.
-- The viability of the Couplet surface boulevard design.
-- The viability of all current surface boulevard designs to effectively serve the Waterfront District.

My preferrence is the Lidded Trench, the least expensive tunnel, its location moved adjacent to the Seawall to combine rebuilding the seawall and leave the viaduct in place.

The Lidded Trench tunnel construction disruption has costs and economic impacts, but the waterfront economy will not come to a complete halt.

It would likely be built in 2-block stages. Starting at the south end, traffic would be detoured 'under' and west of the viaduct. The ped/bike/streetcar corridor and parking beneath the viaduct would be cleared with progression north. Once the trench is covered, traffic is redirected to the surface above it and debris removal occur via the tunnel to the south.

It would be an amazing process to witness and could be completed in 4 years, the main impact occuring during the 2nd and 3rd years, or, 2 years of impact to the waterfront. The final year is spent rebuilding Lower Belltown, traffic diverted via Broad and a temporary bridge over the RR tracks and Elliott to Alaskan Way Blvd.

This is a scenario among many for rebuilding the waterfront that SDOT and WsDOT do not wish the public to consider. Just in case the Deep-Bore tunnel doesn't prove viable, this should be Plan B. The viaduct will not be replaced nor will any surface boulevard alone suffice. The Western/Alaskan Way Couplet is the unsurprisingly worst design of all because it removes all road access necessary to separate motorists looking to park from thru-traffic. SDOT should reconsider it's early designs that were rejected by stakeholders who still think the wide plaza is sensable.


Posted Sun, Jan 18, 11:38 a.m. Inappropriate

"I guess what Licata does could be called populism in contrast to Drago, though this is an isolated comparison. Jan is Vulcan's champion, and Nick is the wine bar/public art champion, both competing to tax me, the guy that wants neither."

Damn, Mr. B., that was dead on. Good line.


Posted Sun, Jan 18, 12:57 p.m. Inappropriate

J.R., there is a position, POV, that anybody could take and run as a third option candidate and beat either one (or both). They battle over the same turf on behalf of the competing interests; people that build million dollar condos, and those that live in them.
Drago's position will result in me paying $300 more in tabs and not getting anything more out of it than somebody living in Walla Walla. I am not the only one.
Licata took a social beating on the Sonics front, right or wrong. When 3000 people show up on the steps of the federal courthouse and see that see Nick championing art and art houses funded to a large extent with public taxes he is forced to admit a social ignorance. His entertainment has more community value because he enjoys it and his bubble is comprised of like-minded people. POP! As a political leader, that is abstract enough to stay with him beyond explaining the details. The "peniciling out" of KeyArena is happening at the same time the city is trying to gain authority for a slice of the hotel tax. Failure costs a remodel of KeyArena or 30 million dollars to the city. So, the subject will not go away on its own before the election. At the same time efforts for scoping details for the Seattle Center master plan will get going. Seattle Center, the end of the First Avenue streetcar line.
One person's opinion, full circle.

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Jan 18, 1:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. B.: I'm going to disagree with a lot of what you wrote, but I'm not just trying to be disagreeable.

The viaduct won't be a major issue in this year's Council campaigns for two reasons. First, there isn't really a third viaduct option, unless you mean the Sierra Club/Stranger view that a surface street alone will do the job. Mike O'Brien of the Sierra Club is a likely Council candidate and this will be his position, but the surface supporters have been very easy on the Gregoire compromise so far, probably because this option ensures that the surface boulevard will be built.

Secondly, Jan Drago isn't running for re-election this year and Nick Licata may step down as well. With Richard McIver leaving too, this means we will have three open Council seats. The prospect of three open seats has already produced a flock of candidates--all of whom are essentially Democrats. And you want them to oppose the surface/deep-bore tunnel option that has already been endorsed by the Democratic Governor, County Exec, and Mayor, plus all six of their potential future Council colleagues? Ain't gonna happen.

You are quite correct that Nick Licata won't get a free ride this time if he decides to run for a fourth term. He skated through two election cycles with token opposition because everybody likes him personally and every elected body needs a resident lefty (right?). Given the number of candidates that have already declared, if Nick runs again, someone will choose to challenge the weakened incumbent, rather than wedge into an overcrowded open seat race.


Posted Sun, Jan 18, 2:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I am not saying there is or is not a better viaduct solution. There are too many options for a majority of people to support, or the one would have been built by now. But the result of this expensive choice and how it is going to get paid for will revive a secondary market for debate that enrages the masses.

Streetcar+more busses+ tunnel= car tabs that cost an added $100 per $10,000 in vehicle value and tolls.

The viaduct and all of the stuff that was piled on top of it, as a topic, should put Dori Monson's children through college.
Drago and the streetcar, Simms and the busses, the mayor and the tunnel, Gregoire standing in front of all three.
And here comes Frank Chopp, what did Mr. Chopp get out of this deal? Nothing, not yet.

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Jan 18, 3:19 p.m. Inappropriate

So, all of the other options cost less, so the majority people are part of a variety of minority options. They can not agree on a solution but they can agree to be against any one option.
You may not get a majority to agree with you option, but you can get them to support being against this option.
Not what I want to see happen, hopefully enough people are like me and just want the processing to stop. We shall see.

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Jan 18, 7:52 p.m. Inappropriate

A lot of Seattle residents actually seem enthused by the mere fact that we have a preferred option after all these years. I don't know that they will want to spend several years fighting this plan just to go back to zero. And, it seems like the Sierra Club surface folks have decided to play along until the surface boulevard gets built. That makes them unlikely to form an alliance with the elevated roadway supporters now, when it could actually stop things.


Posted Sun, Jan 18, 10:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Drago was the leading elected official advocating the deep bore tunnel. The story is still playing out. The AWV is quite complicated as it requires action by three governments, each of which has an executive and a legislative branch. The Drago bore solution requires a major fiscal lift from the State Legislature at a time when they have been quite scared of further increases in the gas tax, scared of imposing tolling, and have too little funding for many projects they have already promised. The ultimate cost of the deep bore tunnel is not yet know. The soil samples will be taken this year. So, the Legislature will have to fund the tunnel.

The City Council is being asked to fund Mercer, Spokane, and take tax votes for the city share of the AWV surface improvements. This as they have yet to fund the Magnolia Bridge or many other projects throughout the city. I-5 was built around 1963 and left many scars in Seattle; Drago, Nickels, and Vulcan want to fix the Mercer scar first.

The County Council will have to vote a tax increase to improve transit service.

There will be other tough choices as well. The transit capacity of downtown Seattle is limited and will not be increased until about 2020 when Link is extended to NE 45th Street and Northgate and north Seattle bus service may be restructured. Seattle may have to give more priority on downtown streets to buses until 2020.

Drago has pushed half-baked and partially funded projects through the Council: the SLU streetcar, the streetcar plan, the first phase of the Mercer Project, and now the deep bore. If a project has not been funded, as the tax votes are the real tough ones, has the choice really been made? Drago advocates streetcars in Seattle partially to escape the constraints of the Metro allocation policy on new service hours, but the change in mode does not help, but actually makes the situation worse, as streetcar hours are more costly than bus hours.

Licata calls attention not only to the general bottom line, but to the opportunity costs. If funds are spent on Mercer, they are not available for the Magnolia Bridge or Greenwood Avenue North sidewalks. If transit hours are spent on streetcar lines, they are not available for more productive bus lines.


Posted Sun, Jan 18, 10:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle would do well to ask the state to impose dynamic tolls quickly on I-5, the Battery Street tunnel, and the AWV. Such tolling is needed to manage demand and raise funds. The deep bore tunnel will require deep pockets.


Posted Sun, Jan 18, 11:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Apparently 85,000 motorists and probqably another 20,000 or 30,000 passengers now experience public views from the Viaduct that only a handful of the very rich or office workers now enjoy. What I think is really moranic is the few who think that the only waterfront worth viewing is along the central waterfront, which, incidentally is 70% blocked visually by historic pier structures full of tourist trinket shops and budget oriented low cost and fast food restaurants. This city is not only surrounded by water with numerous miles of shoreline parks and walkways, but also has inner city lakes with parks and trails. Is a limited access waterfront park worth the cost of $4 billion to $6 billion for a deep tunnel solution. Think of the waterfront and non-waterfront neighborhood parks that could be created citywide with $1 billion overrun that the deep tunnel will certainly have. Anybody who has taken or seen the duck or greyline tours will tell you tourists are interested in seeing more than the Pike Place Market and the Acquarium.
I suspect that many of those supporting the deep tunnel solution will eventually push to have the historic pier sheds on the waterfront taken out to improve park and condo views for the lucky few who can afford to live in the new condos that will eventually develop in the formr viaduct right-of-way.


Posted Mon, Jan 19, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

note: There were two grammarical errors in my earlier post, corrected in parenthesis below:

The argument that any tunnel costs too much, or too much more (than a) replacement viaduct is false. The value of the Waterfront property in taxes and revenue generating potential cannot (be) reached with another viaduct. Any cost savings result in far more losses.

The argument about insufficient capacity with the Deep-Bore tunnel is false. The Deep-Bore tunnel will only handle Aurora-bound traffic, currently about 63,000 vehicles, not too much traffic for four lanes.

The more crucial considerations are:

-- Actual viability of the Deep-Bore, as yet unproven.
-- The inherent safety hazards with the Deep-Bore.
-- The lack of access for Ballard-bound traffic.
-- The viability of the Couplet surface boulevard design.

I'll just add that an excavated tunnel on the Waterfront is my preference. The viaduct can remain in place, though during the last year, traffic is diverted via Broad while rebuilding Lower Belltown. By then, traffic can enter the tunnel at Pike and exit in SoDo. That last year will also have AWV demolition, another unavoidable construction disruption.

I figure voters rejected the tunnel due to their understandable lack of faith in the process and they wanted a study of surface boulevard options, which they didn't get. None of the surface boulevard options are sensible. And, they rejected the elevated replacement because it was the most monstrous 6-lane viaduct.


Posted Mon, Jan 19, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

"I suspect that many of those supporting the deep tunnel solution will eventually push to have the historic pier sheds on the waterfront taken out to improve park and condo views for the lucky few who can afford to live in the new condos that will eventually develop in the formr viaduct right-of-way."

What? Sorry, Knute, that's ridiculous. I do, however, enjoy your tactic of saying something completely crazy and attributing it to your political opponents.


Posted Sun, Jan 3, 11:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for re-posting this report.
I got a LOT of milage out of it this past year. 6 months before Mike McGinn officially stopped being a lobbyist this report was written. For some strange reason Mike McGinn was surprised that the city council was "rushing" to get the tunnel approved (Doh!). Maybe he should read Crosscut.

Mr Baker

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