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.
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Seattle City Council member Jan Drago.

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

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'ꀙt 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. 'ꀜI wrote the script,'ꀝ says the veteran lawmaker with a clear sense of confidence.

That self-assuredness seems justified. 'ꀜShe did the due diligence on bored tunnels and talked with the experts far sooner than any elected official,'ꀝ 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, 'ꀜshe played a very important role in developing consensus among the stakeholder members.'ꀝ

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'ꀙt 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'ꀙs 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 'ꀜNo'ꀝ (to an elevated, by 57 percent) and 'ꀜHell No'ꀝ (to a tunnel, by 70 percent)? Splitting it into two was a Drago idea — and it made all the difference. 'ꀜHad it been a single vote, tunnel vs. elevated,'ꀝ she now says, 'ꀜwe [tunnel supporters] would have been dead on arrival.'ꀝ

The Governor mandated that Seattle vote over the options (something City leaders didn'ꀙt 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. 'ꀜI presented the idea to [Deputy Mayor Tim] Ceis and it took him about two seconds before he said perfect,'ꀝ remembers Drago. And perfect it was for the script she was writing. 'ꀜWe lived to see another day,'ꀝ 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.

But the break in the action over the last two years has clearly favored Drago and the other tunnel supporters. They were able to gather a wide spectrum of support from labor leaders, environmental groups, transit advocates, waterfront park advocates, and business interests. The idea now goes to the Legislature (and federal funders) with an unusually solid front of local political consensus.

Jan Drago has other transportation scripts that are playing out as well. Indeed, her current, fourth term (which ends this year) is easily her most productive and influential since being elected 15 years ago. (She's the most senior member of the City Council.) Perhaps that'ꀙs because she'ꀙs expected to retire at the end of 2009 and wants to leave with a bang. She has not formally announced either way, but most say this year will be her swan song. She'ꀙs certainly approaching it with energy and focus. 'ꀜI want to get all these projects to the point of no return,'ꀝ she says, referring to the Viaduct, the Streetcar network, Mercer Street, and some other transportation items now in play.

That'ꀙs got at least one colleague frustrated. 'ꀜJan doesn'ꀙt seem concerned with the bottom line,'ꀝ says Councilmember Nick Licata, her nemesis over the years, 'ꀜwhich is ironic given that she has a business background.'ꀝ Licata, who holds down the populist wing of the Council, much as Drago anchors the pro-business end, has been a reliable critic of most of what Drago has done in transportation, especially with regard to Mercer and streetcars. 'ꀜShe always seems to favor the big solutions,'ꀝ he notes. 'ꀜI favor the more practical ones.'ꀝ

Practical or not, Drago's projects seem to be winning the day. Consider the legacy she is likely to leave:

Streetcars. 'ꀜThat'ꀙs been my baby since day one,'ꀝ says Drago. Indeed, it was she who, after going to Portland and seeing the nascent network there, came back to Seattle and started shopping the idea to the Mayor and property interests in South Lake Union (especially Vulcan). While Nickels formally presented the plan for the first line and for the overall network, notes Drago, 'ꀜI always had to round up the votes.'ꀝ Which she did — every time. The South Lake Union Streetcar recently celebrated its first year of service, and the City Council recently endorsed, in concept, a five-line network.

The Mercer Mess. Drago has been the Council'ꀙs most vocal champion of the Mayor'ꀙs $200 million plan to create a two-way Mercer Street. On several occasions she has corralled her colleagues to vote for the plan, something that hasn'ꀙt been easy, especially beating back Licata, who has fought her at every step of the way, including a recent push he made to cut funding to the project. 'ꀜIt should never have been in the budget,'ꀝ fumes Drago about the latest (fourth) vote on the project. 'ꀜNick maneuvered to make it so.'ꀝ But, once again, Licata failed to derail Drago, and the vote was 8 to 1. Still, says Licata, 'ꀜthere'ꀙs no grassroots support for the project.'ꀝ

Bridging the Gap Levy. It'ꀙs easy to forget now just how large the 2006 Roads Maintenance measure was going to be. When the Mayor first floated the idea the price tag was a gargantuan $1.6 billion. Drago pushed to bring that down to $1.1 billion (still huge), and then later fought to bring it down even further, to $360 million, an amount that was ultimately approved by voters. Drago'ꀙs pruning certainly helped save the proposal and paved the way for a record pot of money for basic road maintenance. Without that 2006 levy, dramatically fewer road projects would have been possible these last few years.

Drago'ꀙs success in transportation and otherwise is certainly not because of her soaring rhetoric or commanding presence. Her speaking style is typically plodding and uninspired. She is skilled, however, at working the halls and being a forceful player behind the scenes. She works tirelessly and shows up at hundreds of meetings a year. She has been able to win four Council elections against some tough opposition.

In what is likely her final year in office, we'll now get to see how these various complicated scripts play out in the final scene. Especially interesting will be the big finale as Frank Chopp's Legislature weighs in on the tunnel plan for the waterfront.


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