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Originally published Monday, February 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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The heavyweight fight for the waterfront

Gov. Gregoire got so frustrated trying to broker a compromise between Mayor Greg Nickels and House Speaker Frank Chopp on the Alaskan Way...

Seattle Times staff reporters

Gov. Christine Gregoire got so frustrated trying to broker a compromise between Mayor Greg Nickels and House Speaker Frank Chopp on the Alaskan Way Viaduct that she turned to a Republican wise man for advice.

"She called ... and said, 'I've got a big problem,' " said former Gov. Dan Evans. Gregoire and her staff felt stuck between Nickels' dream of a tunnel and Chopp's demand for a new elevated highway along Seattle's waterfront. "They were kind of at wits' end," he said.

Evans, in the conversation late last year, urged Gregoire to back replacing the viaduct with a multibillion-dollar tunnel. Instead, Gregoire tried to do what she's done many times before: force a compromise through personal, private, one-on-one diplomacy.

It didn't work. Instead of a victory to add to her list of successful peace agreements, she exacerbated an increasingly bitter dispute.

Gregoire misread Seattle politics, according to people involved in the viaduct planning, and while trying to find a compromise, came closer to Chopp's hard-line position than Nickels' — choosing the politician she has to deal with daily rather than the one who leads the state's largest city.

"She wants to be a broker, but I'm not sure there's much to broker," said City Council President Nick Licata. "You've got two intransigent politicians, Frank and Greg."

That may be in part because Chopp worked so hard behind the scenes to sink the tunnel plan.

Publicly he wasn't saying much. But at a reception at the governor's mansion, in meetings in his private office, or any time he got wind that the state might be leaning the city's way, Chopp did what he could to stop the tunnel.

To be sure, Nickels worked hard to promote the tunnel. But state officials say there was a difference.

"Chopp has used the back channel to convey his position, and the mayor has been on the front channel," Department of Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said.

It created such an untenable situation that MacDonald one morning in January left a voice-mail message for a top Chopp aide urging the speaker to be more clear about his intentions.

"This is crazy, the goings-on around the city/state negotiations," MacDonald told Jim Richards, a Chopp aide. MacDonald wanted to assure Chopp that the Department of Transportation was no longer doing anything to help the city. But clearly a chasm had opened up within Gregoire's administration.

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"I want to check in with you just to tell you that we aren't doing any work on this right now, but I'm not sure nobody else is. I don't have any confidence, whatsoever, whether or not the city might be talking with the governor's office about some kind of a tunnel-lite," MacDonald said, according to a transcript Richards made of the call.

 

Viaduct becomes a distraction

 

Though Chopp had inside connections he used well, Nickels' position is backed by most of the city's establishment, including the Downtown Seattle Association, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups and many transportation and labor organizations.

They see a tunnel as a once-in-a-generation chance to reunite downtown Seattle with its waterfront and get rid of what they consider a noisy, ugly highway that has divided the city for more than 50 years.

For the past few days, Nickels has been dealing with a family matter and wasn't available to comment for this story.

Engineers say the viaduct must be replaced soon because the 2001 Nisqually earthquake caused major cracks in the aging structure. It could collapse in the next earthquake.

The fight over how to replace it will likely get uglier as Seattle approaches a March 13 advisory election on the issue.

Voters will choose between a $3.4 billion tunnel being pushed by the city and a $2.8 billion elevated highway mainly supported by Chopp and House Democrats.

Election Day can't come soon enough for Gregoire. She sternly told reporters at a news conference last week that she didn't want to answer any more questions about the viaduct.

"I'm done. You know what? I want to talk about education. I want to talk about health care. I want to talk about jobs ... ," she said. "I am not going to get distracted."

Too late. She's distracted, and the 2007 legislative session will likely be best remembered for how the governor deals with the viaduct.

 

Two very different politicians

 

To understand Gregoire's challenge you need to first understand Nickels and Chopp.

Nickels, 51, is in his second term as mayor and seems more eager each day to exercise all the power he has as Washington's big-city mayor.

He sees a tunnel as a way to open the city to the water, essentially turning downtown around to face the sea.

Nickels likes big transportation projects. He was an enthusiastic backer of Sound Transit even through its dark days when the agency's first light-rail proposal had a $1 billion cost overrun. He also supported the ill-fated monorail until the day its political backing crumbled.

He's backed not only by most of Seattle's establishment, but also by Evans and by Gregoire's predecessor, former Democratic Gov. Gary Locke.

Chopp, 53, has represented the 43rd District — which covers a swath of Seattle neighborhoods including Capitol Hill, Montlake, Wallingford and parts of Fremont — since 1994. He became leader of the House Democrats in 1998.

It's a distinctly liberal district. But Chopp was born in Bremerton and likes to refer to himself as a "Bremerton Democrat" — a more blue-collar, less lattelike Democrat.

Licata, who stands with Chopp on calling for a new elevated freeway, contends that he and Chopp represent "grumpy Seattle," which he says is the city's silent majority.

Since Chopp became House Democratic leader, his caucus has picked up 20 seats, giving the party an overwhelming majority. Chopp, seen as the architect of that resurgence, has tremendous clout as a result. He can stop deals cold.

Why does he oppose the tunnel so vehemently?

"The monorail. Need I say more?" he said. "That was a local city thing. They asked for the authority and we gave it to them. Then they came back with something that was totally unaffordable. Then you look at the Sound Transit proposal for light rail ... . Sorry, I'm just not going to take the risk on it."

In 2001, Chopp held up approval of a new Tacoma Narrows Bridge because he opposed the plan to have a private company finance and build it. Instead, he wanted public financing, which he argued would be cheaper, and he stood up to Congressman Norm Dicks, legislative transportation leaders and others to get his way.

"I said you can't do the Narrows bridge unless you do public financing, which saved $1.2 billion," he said in a recent interview. He lifted himself from his chair and leaned into a reporter's tape recorder to say loudly and clearly: "You hear that? $1.2 billion with a B."

 

No compromise this time

 

Gregoire was put in the middle of the viaduct debate by the state Legislature in early 2006. Lawmakers asked her to examine reports from an expert-review panel on two options — a $4.6 billion, six-lane tunnel or a $2.8 billion elevated highway — and decide whether each financing plan was feasible.

Many hoped she would pick a project. But Gregoire tried to live up to her reputation as someone who could negotiate a compromise where everyone else has failed.

She met one on one with the mayor, with no staff allowed, and did the same with Chopp. She also met with them together, again with no staff in the room. In the end, finding that Chopp and Nickels wouldn't budge, she punted.

The governor issued lengthy findings in December that boiled down to this: Seattle voters should choose between a tunnel and an elevated roadway before the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn April 22.

"When the governor issued her findings she tried but couldn't find a way to bring a common path between the mayor and the speaker and she couldn't see any way to resolve it without a vote," said Tom Fitzsimmons, Gregoire's chief of staff.

Nickels saw Gregoire's decision as an opportunity to try a new tack.

He contacted her office in early January to float the idea of cutting the tunnel's cost. He proposed trimming the tunnel from six lanes to four, which, along with other changes, he said would save $1.2 billion.

Gregoire's staff was told to help the city refine the proposal, Fitzsimmons said.

Chopp was unhappy about that when he ran into MacDonald at a reception at the Governor's Mansion after Gregoire's Jan. 9 state-of-the-state address.

MacDonald said Chopp was alarmed because he thought it looked like the Department of Transportation was becoming pro-tunnel.

A few days later, Chopp met with MacDonald and a top transportation official, David Dye, in his office to discuss what they were doing.

When MacDonald said he had been told to assist the city with the new tunnel proposal, Chopp interrupted to say that was not what the governor told him, according to a memo prepared by Chopp's staff after the meeting. (Those documents and others were given by the speaker's office to city officials. The city released the documents in response to a public-records request.)

Chopp was right. The governor's office decided to stop working on the city's tunnel plan, saying it was too big of a change to consider. When Deputy Seattle Mayor Tim Ceis asked Fitzsimmons for a meeting to discuss the city's plan, Fitzsimmons said it wouldn't make any difference.

"I called him and said there's no point in coming down because we're not going to get there," Fitzsimmons said.

Chopp's staff prepared a memo outlining the "worst-case" scenario: The city would develop a less expensive tunnel plan, agree to cover all additional costs, and win support from Gregoire and a majority of the Legislature.

If that happened, Chopp was advised to try to "take the ballot off the table" and stop the vote, giving him "time to refute numbers/discredit plan."

The memo also said Chopp could "remind the governor of her promise to jointly approve ballot language" or "announce opposition to ballot language as phony and not binding on Legislature."

Chopp says he doesn't recall reading the memo and certainly didn't act on it.

 

Gregoire says tunnel off table

 

The machinations came to a head when Gregoire called a meeting between all the principal players on Jan. 17.

Given that the state had already ended its cooperative role with the city, Ceis said, "We kind of smelled a setup."

At the meeting, Nickels pitched the city's proposal to put a smaller, less expensive tunnel on the ballot April 24, two days after the Legislature's scheduled adjournment.

The mayor was the lone tunnel supporter in the governor's office. He was surrounded by Chopp, Licata, the House and Senate transportation committee chairs, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and the governor.

The governor told Nickels the tunnel was off the table, Licata said. Nickels was told the city's cost estimates were unproven and that the ballot date did not meet her earlier demand for a vote before lawmakers left town.

Gregoire, Chopp and other legislative leaders prepared a statement saying that either the viaduct would be replaced with an elevated highway or the state would take the money away and use it to help replace the Highway 520 bridge.

Nickels left the governor's office without commenting to reporters.

"He was outgunned and he was totally pissed off when he left," Licata said.

 

City puts tunnel on ballot

 

The next day, Nickels upped the stakes and pushed to put the new tunnel on the ballot in March, more than a month before Gregoire's earlier deadline.

The Seattle City Council agreed and on Jan. 19 voted to put two measures on the ballot, one asking for an up or down vote on the tunnel, and another for the elevated highway.

The governor and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate appeared dumbfounded by the move.

Gregoire issued a statement saying "We must move forward," but it wasn't clear if she still supported a Seattle vote or wanted to simply move ahead with an elevated highway.

She seemed to refine her position over the weekend and held a press conference on Jan. 22, saying that although she still had concerns about Nickels' tunnel proposal, "I will never, ever say that a vote of the people is a waste."

In other words, the tunnel was alive.

For some, the troublesome path was evidence that Gregoire did not fully understand how Seattle works.

"She really on a couple of occasions misunderstood Seattle politics," Licata said, noting that Gregoire overestimated his power as City Council president and underestimated the extent to which Nickels' views were backed by the city's power structure.

In addition to business, labor and environmental groups, the mayor has the backing of people who have held Gregoire's job.

Locke said that at one point he'd collected the signatures of all living former governors except Republican John Spellman on a letter to Gregoire opposing any elevated structure to replace the viaduct. The letter was never sent because events moved too fast, he said.

Even Chopp's two Democratic seatmates in Seattle's 43rd District, Sen. Ed Murray and rookie Rep. Jamie Pedersen, oppose an elevated highway.

Suzanne Burke, a prominent North Seattle property owner, backs Chopp. Chopp, she said, "is solid on this for a damn good reason. He knows where the economics are. He knows where the jobs are. He's always been a basic jobs guy. He isn't quite so fooled by the 'vision.' "

Chopp shrugs off questions about his backing in Seattle, or in his district. He also dismisses talk about Gregoire being stuck between him and the mayor.

"This notion about it being a disagreement between public officials is not relevant," he said.

"It's not just politics. We're talking about billions of dollars here of taxpayers' money. I have a responsibility to stand up for the taxpayers of this state and the people in my district and say, 'My God, this is not feasible and way too expensive and way too risky.' "

Last week, Gregoire and legislative leaders restarted the on-again, off-again, Department of Transportation review of Nickels' tunnel plan. A letter they sent said "voters should have the opportunity to, as much as possible, make an informed decision."

Chopp saw the letter as another tool to dismantle Nickels' tunnel.

"The idea," he said, "is to point out the ... inconsistencies of the tunnel-lite plan."

 

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com. Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

 

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