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Wednesday, March 8, 2006 - Page updated at 01:18 AM

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City Council could get key role in viaduct fate

Seattle Times staff reporters

OLYMPIA — The Seattle City Council could have a key role in deciding the fate of the Alaskan Way Viaduct under a proposal put forward by Gov. Christine Gregoire and lawmakers late Tuesday.

The deal calls on the council to hold a series of public hearings and then, by ordinance, decide whether to rebuild the viaduct or replace it with a tunnel. The council also would have the option of putting the choice directly before Seattle voters in November.

The proposal, part of a larger package dealing with regional transportation issues, passed the Senate 38-7 late Tuesday. It now heads to the House.

The biggest benefit of the viaduct provision is that "it just ends the debate," said Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. "We need to get to a decision."

The last-minute deal came together after a tumultuous day of brokering. Gregoire earlier in the day had floated a proposal that would have required an advisory vote by Seattle residents this November. The idea was quickly attacked by lawmakers and the governor backed off.

The viaduct proposal was included in legislation that would require the three-county taxing authority known as the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) to put a transportation tax package on the ballot in 2007. There's also opposition to the regional transportation proposal.

The viaduct is part of Highway 99.

A debate over the viaduct's future erupted last week when lawmakers in the House fought over legislation that would have killed the viaduct tunnel proposal unless full funding for the project was found by the beginning of next month. The House eventually passed legislation requiring the governor to decide on a viaduct-replacement project by Jan. 1, 2007, after looking at a financial review of the different options.

Gregoire then met with House and Senate lawmakers and came up with a new proposal released Tuesday. The latest version would have a panel of experts look over the finances of viaduct-replacement proposals and turn over the findings by Sept. 1.

The City Council could either ask voters this November what to do or hold hearings and decide the matter itself. It's expected that whatever decision is made, it would be included in a regional tax package on the 2007 ballot.

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There were concerns earlier Tuesday about a public vote in Seattle.

Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle, said he's worried a tunnel vote would dominate the coming election. "Every Seattle legislator is up for re-election next fall. I'm afraid that all of our campaigns will become about whether we're for the tunnel or the viaduct."

State officials have said there's already enough money to rebuild the viaduct, damaged by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, at a cost of about $2.45 billion. However, the city of Seattle wants the state to build a tunnel. That would cost more money but open the waterfront to new recreation and development.

The latest estimates put the tunnel cost at $3.1 billion to $3.6 billion.

City officials say they can put together $3.2 billion for the project, including city utility and street money and $200 million from the Port of Seattle. Raising the additional money, though, could mean an increase in the city's utility rates that would require City Council approval.

The city also is looking to a regional tax package that could add $800 million for viaduct replacement.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels proposed his own advisory vote of sorts on the viaduct's future earlier this week, saying he'd like to ask voters in November for at least $25 million a year in new property taxes to repair aging local streets and bridges and perhaps underwrite the tunnel project.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis declined to comment on the Legislature's proposal. Calls to the mayor's office were not returned.

The RTID proposal released by the governor's office calls for an all-or-nothing approach to how King, Pierce and Snohomish counties will go about fixing their growing traffic jams.

It calls upon Sound Transit and RTID to put their proposed mass-transit and highway improvements before voters together in 2007. Voters would have to approve both improvement packages for either to happen, a strategy Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, said could force compromise between highway supporters and transit supporters and force both Sound Transit and the RTID to spell out exactly how much things will cost.

But the governor and the group of lawmakers apparently neglected to get Sound Transit's buy-in before moving forward. Sound Transit board Chairman John Ladenburg, who is also Pierce County executive, said he first heard of the plan in a press release. Waiting until 2007 could jeopardize Sound Transit's momentum with voters, he said. "The public expects us now to put a transit plan forward for them. Delaying it a year is not going to be seen as an efficient use of government resources when we spent all this time planning," Ladenburg said.

Staff reporter Ralph Thomas contributed to this report. Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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