Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Christine Gregoire, Governor of Washington

  • By Dominic Black and Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 6/11/2023
  • Essay 22744
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Christine Gregoire (b. 1947) served as Governor of Washington from 2005 to 2013. In this 2022 interview with HistoryLink's Dominic Black and Jennifer Ott, Gregoire discusses the political and financial wranglings leading to demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, construction of a deep-bore tunnel to replace it, and the subsequent rebuilding of Seattle's central waterfront. 

WSDOT, the Commission, and the Governor

Dominic Black: So when you became governor in 2005, what were the top things on your list? Did you have a list of five things that you thought: Okay, this is where I want to really be directing my energy?

Christine Gregoire: Well, I think for purposes of our discussion, you would think transportation, but I need to clarify something that's important. The head of the Department of Transportation did not report to the governor, but rather reported to a commission that was appointed by the governor and approved by the senate. It was that first legislative session after I was elected that the chairs of the two transportation committees, one house, one senate, came to me and said, time for a change. We need accountability. And that accountability should lie in the governor, and we want to change the organizational structure so that the Department of Transportation reports directly to the governor. So that occurred that legislative session. When that occurred, whatever my priorities were changed dramatically because I then saw that there were two mega-projects that were sitting on hold, that if the quake had gone literally seconds longer, both could have been destroyed and many, many lives lost. That was the 520 bridge, the largest floating bridge in the world, and the viaduct on the waterfront. So that became a priority for me out of absolute necessity.

DB: Was that a difficult maneuver to change that organizational structure?  

CG: Yes. Remember this is a very large agency, with a discipline of engineers and so on and throughout history had reported to a commission, which made it fairly independent, because that's not a daily reporting structure. So to change that culture was a significant challenge.

DB: And did people see it as a power grab on your part?

CG: No, because I didn't do it. It was the legislature who I hadn't even thought about this issue, to be perfectly honest with you. When we were running, no one asked us any questions about it, it wasn't an issue. And then suddenly out of the clear blue, these two chairs come and say, this has not been working for us. We want accountability. We think that should rest with the governor. And so we are going to pass legislation and we want you to sign it. So it was no power grab on my part, but rather it was the legislative leadership saying they wanted the change.

Facing Two Mega-projects

DB: So when you send the legislation and then this new world opens up to you, what are your first reactions to realizing that you have these two mega-projects that are sitting and that they're both at … critical points?

CG: Well, a couple of thoughts. One, I did on occasion ask myself, what did governors who preceded me do with all their time when they didn't have the Department of Transportation reporting directly to them and confronting two mega-projects at the same time, which had never happened. So, the amount of time that had to be dedicated, one, I needed to come up to speed because again, it had not been an issue for me. I had obviously come in contact with it as Attorney General, but only from that limited lens. And then to face the idea that we were going to try and simultaneously do two mega-projects was formidable because I came to understand doing one is a challenge and a half, doing two was just really unthinkable.

But I will tell you, in all my eight years serving as governor, if you were to ask me what actually, if anything, ever kept me up at night, it would be that. Because having been myself a part of that earthquake – realizing it was a matter of seconds before the seawall would collapse at the waterfront, which would take down the viaduct, and it could have had hundreds or even more cars on it, and people below and businesses below, all of which could have been destroyed and lives lost, or the same be true of the 520 bridge – was a heavy, heavy burden, to be perfectly honest with you.

City Versus State

CG: I inherited what had already begun as a process for the viaduct. And as I deepened my understanding of what was going on, the process really hadn't worked. It hadn't moved things along to a decision making. So as I analyzed what had worked, what hadn't for both projects (but I'll dedicate myself to the viaduct) I began to ask those who were working with me, "okay, what needs to change?" We can't be stymied by process. How do we move it along? Those who are opposed, why are they opposed? And I began to understand vividly the differences that were present. From the businesses on the waterfront who were absolutely panicked at the amount of time that things would be closed down, to people who lived there; to people who rode on the viaduct and thought it was a wonderful visual asset to the city; to those environmentalists in particular who wanted the viaduct down and no replacement whatsoever. I mean ... so I was trying to make myself understand all the different interests, what their respective positions were, and how we might try and find some commonality at the end of the day that would maybe not make everybody happy, but at least mitigate all of the concerns that people had to some degree or another.

DB: So then how would you characterize the needs of the state as represented by the Department of Transportation and then the needs of the city as represented by the city administration at the time, which I guess eventually was, I'm moving towards here when Greg Nickels becomes mayor, and how those play out. What are those two competing, I don't want to say competing interests, but competing needs?

CG: Well, Greg felt – Mayor Nickels – felt very strongly. He was an advocate for a tunnel. The county exec was really leaning toward, "Could we be able to get rid of the viaduct and not replace it," to some very important leadership in the legislature who were quite adamant that they wanted a replacement viaduct. So those were the options and strongly felt behind all three and each having their own power in the decision-making process. So I began the process of how do we deal with all of this along with dealing with the port, because the seawall was so critical. So in the end you had the port, the city, the county, the state, through the Department of Transportation and the governor and the legislature, all of which had very strong opinions.

There's one thing I feel about transportation, and that is the public believes oftentimes, legislators believe oftentimes they are experts in two subjects, one, education because they went to school; two, transportation because they drive. So they hold very strong feelings on the subject. They don't defer to others where most legislation actually takes place, but rather they have their own strong feelings. Well imagine we've got the entire legislative body; we've got the department; we've got not just the mayor, but the city council; we've got the port and the commission; we've got the county exec and that commission or that council. So that's a lot of interests to try and bring them together to feel that they'd had their say, and that they played a role and they're satisfied with both the process and the end result.

The Governor and the Final Decision

Jennifer Ott: So you've heard from all of those different groups. Who and how does a final decision get made from the perspective of the governor's office?

CG: Well, it's a very good question, because I'm not sure I ever really gave that a lot of thought because I thought that I could build consensus and I wouldn't be pushed to the point where I would be the one that would have to make a decision. I wasn't right on that subject. 

But again, what we did is we looked at the respective alternatives and I asked for a deep dive on each of them and the pros and the cons of each of them. And interestingly enough, at the time, the tunnel was way too expensive. So that was not a viable alternative. So it was really down to don't replace it, tear it down, or replace it.

Don't replace it, tear it down, could have led to unbelievably worse traffic conditions in Seattle than what we even experience today, and people complain how bad it is today. And we could forecast that and we could see that. So then the question really became, do we replace the viaduct? Do we try and keep this one? Really not a smart decision, in my opinion. So how do we do that? Nonetheless, even after we did that analysis of the respective alternatives, people still hung on to what they wanted. So it didn't matter. The data didn't matter, the science didn't matter. It was still strongly held positions that were not going to be deterred.

JO: So then you had to just make a decision.

CG: So I let the process go and let the process go and let the process go. And then again, it's the only thing that I can really tell you kept me up at night and I finally said to my Secretary of transportation, Paula Hammond, time to call the question. I can't build a consensus decision, so I am not going to be frozen and do nothing. I want you to go back through the three alternatives one last time and tell me anything that's new. Interestingly enough, what became new was the tunnel became affordable – dramatic shift. So [she] brought that back to me. Nothing really changed on the surface idea. And quite frankly, I was opposed to the surface idea, not only because of the projected added congestion, but it would've made a mess in the waterfront. It would just have been traffic backed up constantly. And that's a destination tourism part of the city.

Remember, Seattle is the economic engine in the state and tourism is a large part of that. So you have to really take that into consideration when you're looking at this issue. So it was replacement and I had multiple people coming in and showing me how I would replace it and how it could be done and so on and so forth. In the end, I said I got to go with my head and make the best decision I can and take my lumps. And I believed that: one – it was safer from earthquakes. I was taught, I learned with a tunnel. Two – we could open up the waterfront and what had happened in San Francisco and what had happened in Vancouver, British Columbia, were amazing. And three, we could make it a wonderful place, not just for tourists, but our families who could enjoy it much greater than what they did when the viaduct was there. And I became convinced there are ways in which we could mitigate the loss to the businesses on the waterfront from the time of construction. And ultimately they would come out of this better than they ever were before. And I would do my best to let them see that. 

And so I called the question, called my colleagues, the mayor and the county exec, shared with them the decision. And you know, they were great. They were great. So now that doesn't mean everybody else was satisfied, because it went on and on. But the fact of the matter is the decision was made and we began the process of negotiating with the Port; negotiating with the city on who would pay for what, how it would be done; negotiating with the legislature, which was significant in trying to build consensus there. We had a change in mayor, which added a new dynamic, and challenging dynamic, really worked hard with the city council and they stepped up with really great leadership. And ultimately I feel that we did as good a job as we possibly could.

The Legislature and the Ballot Initiative

DB: Early in those initial stages, when you're being presented with the various options, why was the state pushing for the replacement of the viaduct with a new elevated highway? What was the reasoning behind that?

CG: The legislature? It was the legislature. 

You know … It was felt very strongly that it was really something important for the people to be able to drive across the viaduct, look out over the waterfront, look back up at the city possibly, that they wanted a two level and then on top of that second level would be like a greenery and so on where you could actually have a park. They drew me diagrams to let me see that. It was a heartfelt bias on their part that they thought this could be the best outcome for the city.

DB: So this is the legislature. And just so I'm clear, because obviously I'm not entirely clear about how these things work. So this is the legislature's view collectively that ...

CG: No, no, no. Excuse me. I'm sorry. This was a select few, but those select few were quite powerful.

DB: Right.

CG: But it was a handful of legislators that felt this way. Others were pretty, "Make your case." Not, "I have a bias," but "Make your case."

DB: And did you see yourself as having a role, just so I'm clear, in "representing the state" by pushing for that option? Not necessarily the three levels with the greenery on top, but the option where you have a new, elevated freeway along the waterfront.

CG: You know I ... I'm not sure I understand the question. My attitude was, I wasn't there to make a decision for me. I was pretty irrelevant. I was there to make a decision for the people of the state with a particular focus on the people of Seattle. And that decision had to stand the test of time because it would be there for generations. So that was my focus. Is that responsive?

DB: Yeah, I'll ask you another question that might clarify this. I mean I guess the way that I've pictured this in my head is that you have the King County executive, you have the mayor and yourself and you're representative of, I have in my head this amalgamation of interests which is the legislature's view plus what you're hearing from the Department of Transportation. 

And so let me ask you something else. There was a meeting in January, 2007, which made a lot of press at the time. I think it was a meeting where there was yourself and Mayor Nickels. and he described it in very vivid terms as a meeting where he went and was being persuaded by the state that any tunnel was not viable, and that the state's preferred option was a new elevated highway. And Jen, am I characterizing that correctly? Sorry, just to make sure that I'm getting this right.

JO: Yes. So that would be the January 2007. So that's after the first draft environmental impact statement when there's the five options and the no build and it did not include the street in transit. And then there's the supplemental EIS when it becomes the no build, the cut and cover, or the elevated structure. And then out of that, the way we understand it from what we read, like in the press accounts and talking with Mayor Nickels and Paula Hammond, was that in January of 2007, the state, the decision was the elevated structure because the tunnel was still not an option. And that's when it went to the March 2007 advisory vote.

CG: By the people of Seattle.

JO: In Seattle. Yeah. And then in January 2009 is when there's the option that the tunnel becomes viable. So Dominic is asking about that 2007 right before the advisory vote. I know we have these charts to understand the timeline.

CG: So I'm not going to remember the specificity of that, but a decision hadn't been made. Okay. If the mayor thought it was, yeah, leaning that way because the other options weren't working, to be perfectly honest with you. So I think, and he would recall this probably better than me because of his interest. And the tunnel option, which he felt strongly about, wasn't viable financially at the time, so that wasn't one. And, AND, the cut and cover isn't exactly what we ultimately came out with. That is not what we've done. We've done a deep tunnel. Okay. So we are not on an option that was being considered in the early days of all of this. So I can see where he might have come away with that, but no decision had been made. The advisory vote was not our option. That was – they did that, not us. 

Other State Priorities

CG: So from a transportation perspective, the main issue we had at that time was the pass, I-90 going over [Snoqualmie] Pass. It was closing too often because of snow, slides, that sort of thing. And again, that is a kind of lifeblood to going both ways. It's not lifeblood to Eastern Washington, it's lifeblood also coming back to Western Washington. So that was the other big priority for us at the time. 

But again, it's just undeniable. Seattle is a economic engine in the state of Washington. And so solving problems there of the magnitude that we had before us where lives could have been lost and the economy would've just shut down. It was clearly in the interest of the state. So I never viewed this as myself making a decision for what's right for Seattle, that's up to the mayor or what's right for King County, that's up to the exec. My job is what's right for the state. And so we had those three priorities, the viaduct, the I-90, and also of course the 520 bridge.

Relationships in Politics

CG: Really in politics for the most part, not always, but for the most part – at least in that day and age and at least with me – if everybody got their voices heard, if everybody felt they had been respected in the process and listened to and the decision was not made for political purposes or self-interest or anything of that nature, people were willing to respect, the ultimate decision rests with the governor of the state. Now, that's not necessarily true with members of the public who were unhappy with me. They were not going to accept. But politically, I to this day have a wonderful relationship with Ron Sims. We ran against each other for governor. I can assure you, it was much more heated then than it was over this. Greg Nickels and I still have a very good working relationship. Those legislators who felt very strongly about replacing the viaduct, I have a good working relationship with them. That's politics at its best.

Everybody Wins

JO: So you said that your goal was to have a win for the public, for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. Do you feel like, how would you assess what's coming out of this whole process and now actually coming to fruition? Like, we went with the tunnel, we have the waterfront changes, we have the new seawall, but would you assess how it's happened and what is going to result as a win for the public generally of the state of Washington?

CG: Well, we're not done. The second aquarium is going to be unbelievably important down there. The rest of the plans for the whole waterfront are going to be fantastic. When we're done down there, everybody will win. Everybody will win without one iota, a bit of doubt in my mind. Even the naysayers, and I've had a number of them stop me on the street. I don't know these people and say, I was wrong. You were right and we're not done. We are not done. So, I had a vision and I firmly believe it's still the right vision. We needed to open up our waterfront to the city of Seattle and its population. And that's what we're doing. And I will be willing to say to you, I predict that while our icon today is the Space Needle, it may very well be in conjunction with the waterfront. If not, the waterfront is our icon.

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