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Friday, March 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM



Deft beginning to regional solutions

Gov. Christine Gregoire showed leadership and creativity in crafting a plan that will settle the red-hot question of whether Seattle should build a tunnel or a new aerial roadway to replace the dangerous Alaskan Way Viaduct. Seattle voters or the City Council will decide.

Heavy politicking in recent weeks featured a vigorous tunnel-versus-rebuild battle between lawmakers in Olympia and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Under the governor's sensible approach to regional transportation adopted by the House and Senate, voters via advisory vote or the City Council will back either plan by November 2006. The decision will benefit from more-detailed information provided by a team of experts that reports to the governor

Is a plebiscite the best way to make such a big transportation decision? No. But in this case, the mayor was trying to force on the community a $3.1 billion-to-$3.6 billion tunnel with uncertain funding.

The governor, working with Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, provided middle ground and an end point to the hand-wringing that could have gone on indefinitely. Someone has to make a decision sometime.

An underlying concern is that tunnel cost estimates will always be understated and the assessment of resources available to pay for it would be unreliable. The panel of experts should help. The $2.4 billion needed for the rebuild is already in hand.

Compromise regional transportation legislation also does some other things:

• It requires a public vote in November 2007 on resources needed and projects to be accomplished. The project list will include Highway 520 (and mitigation), Highway 167, Interstate 405 and other projects.

• The compromise requires a simultaneous vote on expansion of this road-and-transit package and Sound Transit's expansion to Northgate and perhaps across Lake Washington. Voters can pick between the two but both have to pass for either to succeed.

Under normal circumstances, this would not be the best way to do business. Projects should live or die on their own strength. However, it may be true that the regional package needs Sound Transit more than transit needs roads, which makes this a practical compromise.

• Seattle's advisory ballot ought to include very descriptive language about the costs of the two projects and expected funding sources. It is one thing to ask voters whether they want a big deluxe project, another to explain how they will pay for it.

Creating a compromise on a regional plan as complicated as this was no small feat. This agreement reflects deft politicking and leadership.

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