Gregoire declares tunnel dead; mayor says let the people vote
Gov. Christine Gregoire and legislative leaders dismissed the idea of a tunnel along Seattle's waterfront Wednesday, and said the state will...
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIA — Gov. Christine Gregoire and legislative leaders dismissed the idea of a tunnel along Seattle's waterfront Wednesday, and said the state will either replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with an elevated highway or spend the billions set aside for the project on a new Highway 520 bridge.
The verdict came after a tense, closed-door meeting among Gregoire, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, City Council President Nick Licata and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
The governor and lawmakers unanimously rejected Nickels' new proposal to replace the viaduct with a tunnel that's smaller and supposedly cheaper than the previous tunnel option being considered.
In an interview after the meeting, a defiant Nickels refused to concede defeat and vowed to continue fighting to allow Seattle voters to weigh in on the smaller tunnel proposal after the legislative session ends.
"I'm very disappointed by the statement from the governor, after asking us to put the issue to voters, that she's not interested in the opinion of Seattle citizens," Nickels said. "I find it hard to believe any other city in the state would be treated in this manner."
He added later in a written statement: "We will follow the will of the people of Seattle, not the dictates of Olympia."
Licata, however, said he thinks the tunnel is dead.
"I don't see how the tunnel can be revived given that there was unanimous opposition to the mayor's plan by all the House and Senate leaders," said Licata, who opposes a tunnel.
"I think Seattle residents are in the position of just trying to hold on to the money for the viaduct before it's stripped away into other projects."
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, also said she doesn't expect a tunnel to be considered this legislative session.
"There was unity among legislative leaders that we're down to these two options in our opinion," Brown said, referring to building an elevated highway or shifting state money to Highway 520.
"We want to move forward with something because we put resources out there and there are safety issues at stake with two major projects," Brown said.
The Legislature, she said, could force the issue and replace the viaduct, which is part of state Highway 99, with an elevated highway by declaring it a "project of statewide significance." That would mean the state, and not the city, would be in charge of issuing permits.
Some city officials have suggested the city would be slow to issue permits to build another viaduct.
The project has been at a political standstill.
Nickels and a majority of City Council members oppose building a new elevated viaduct, and endorsed a tunnel instead. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and a majority of House Democrats say a tunnel would be too expensive and want to build an elevated highway.
Last month, Gregoire issued her findings on the viaduct options, saying the state could afford the $2.8 billion elevated highway but said the finance plan for the $4.6 billion, six-lane tunnel didn't pencil out.
Acknowledging the political stalemate, she called on city leaders to put the options on the ballot before the legislative session ends April 22 — or else the state would move ahead with the elevated structure.
Gregoire says she wants the Legislature to appropriate money for the replacement project this session.
Nickels came back this week with a four-lane tunnel plan that he said would cost $1.2 billion less than the larger one.
Wednesday's meeting, called by the governor, was the chance for Nickels to pitch the smaller tunnel to state leaders.
Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, described the meeting as tense.
"It was a stressful meeting for everybody," she said.
The city proposed putting the smaller tunnel and the elevated highway on the ballot on April 24 — two days after the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn.
Gregoire read a statement after the meeting on behalf of herself and legislative leaders. "Legislative leaders, transportation chairs and the governor rejected that timeline because it is beyond the scheduled Legislature adjournment," the statement said.
It also said the assumptions about the cost of the smaller tunnel and the amount of traffic it could carry had not been studied by the state Department of Transportation.
Gregoire declined to answer any questions.
Ed Murray, D-Seattle, a vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he would oppose any move to force an elevated highway on Seattle.
"For Democrats to dictate to a local jurisdiction what a project looks like flies in the face of everything Democrats have tried to do to protect local control and preserve quality of life," he said.
The viaduct, built in 1953, carries 110,000 cars a day and is downtown Seattle's only north-south alternative to already overloaded Interstate 5. The 2001 Nisqually earthquake caused major cracks in the aging structure.
The state has already set aside $2.4 billion, including gas taxes and federal aid, for a replacement project. The governor's office says the state should come up with an additional $400 million.
If the Legislature decides not to build an elevated highway, that apparently leaves shifting money for the viaduct to the Highway 520 bridge, which also needs to be replaced.
The Highway 520 bridge is projected to cost $4.4 billion to $5.3 billion for a six-lane bridge to replace the four-lane span constructed in 1963. The structure is expected to wear out in 13 to 18 years, and engineers consider it to be as weak as the Alaskan Way Viaduct if an earthquake hits.
Murray, who opposes building another elevated highway, said he would support shifting the state's viaduct money to the Highway 520 bridge.
"We need to replace one of these structures," he said. "And if there isn't agreement among elected officials in Seattle, including legislators, then we need to move forward with 520 and I believe the Legislature would support that."
Murray said he doesn't believe the idea of eventually building a tunnel is dead yet.
"We're not done," he said.
Staff reporters David Postman, Ralph Thomas, Bob Young and Susan Gilmore contributed to this story. Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or email@example.com
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