Speaker Frank Chopp emerged from his cave this week, granting a short interview with Seattle Times' Olympia reporter Andrew Garber, who had been badgering Chopp in print about his Greta Garbo demeanor. It was a classic Chopp performance, implying more than he was really saying. Veterans of Olympia know that Chopp is famous for reversing what seemed like a commitment but really wasn't, had you looked at the fine print. (A classic example was his seeming agreement with the Steve Ballmer-led Sonics boosters.)
Mostly, Chopp talked about the Viaduct, implying without really committing himself that he was now inclined toward the deep bore tunnel idea, despite his passionate advocacy for years for his own "Choppaduct" solution. For instance, when Garber asked Chopp if the tunnel plan, already passed by a wide margin in the Senate, would be allowed to a floor vote in Chopp's House, the Speaker said: "Potentially yes. There still needs to be thought about...who pays for costs beyond $2.4 billion? We have to consider options there."
Well, there's the whole ballgame. One of the key compromises on the tunnel plan was that the state has full liability for cost overruns. Earlier, the Viaduct plan sank on just this issue, with the City and the state bitterly feuding over just who would pay for what overrun component. In the Gregoire-Nickels compromise, the state is on the line for all of the tunnel and the City for all of the rest. (In fact, the contract for the tunnel will probably be a "design-build" scheme where the contractor, bidding high, is on the hook for overruns, as well as the beneficiary of coming in under budget.) To my suspicious eye, here was Chopp preparing the way for torpedoing the tunnel idea.
Then there was Chopp's point about tolls for the tunnel, another critical component of the funding. "Tolls just don't work," he replied, citing the problems of the portals (whatever that may be). Another torpedo? Here it gets more byzantine, for Chopp is actually a tolls advocate and is frying some other fish.
What I suspect is going on are the first outlines of a large deal that Chopp, a consummate dealmaker, is forging and starting to test publicly. Chopp wants the very expensive solution to the 520 bridge, with a tunnel under the Montlake Cut and other amenites (this is his district, after all). For this he needs tolls, including on the I-90 bridge. Ah, but on the I-90 bridge he most confront Rep. Judy Cliborn, chair of House Transportation Committee and defender of her district, Mercer Island, which does not want to pay tolls to help another bridge. And Cliborn favors the deep-bore tunnel for the Viaduct.
Get it yet? Chopp gives Gov. Gregoire and Cliborn the tunnel plan for the Viaduct in exchange for the luxury model for 520 and tolls (a few years later) on the Mercer Island bridge. Normally, to get Chopp to agree to big deals like this you have to sweeten the package with large dollops of low-income housing, so also look for that to show up along the waterfront.
One final bit of delicious vintage Chopp, for you connoisseurs. He unveils the story, which he has often told off the record before, of how he and the Governor asked Mayor Nickels for some give in the 2007 negotiations over the Viaduct, and Nickels bluntly said No. That sounds very like Nickels (and Chopp), and it lays out there the problem Nickels may have in getting re-elected: there's just no give in his negotiating style. Even in sidling crab-wise toward a deal on the Viaduct, Chopp can't resist insulting a key partner.