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Originally published Saturday, February 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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No time to study tunnel idea, panel says of its dissolution

A state-appointed panel of outside experts, called into Seattle this week to study a four-lane Alaskan Way tunnel and other highway options...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A state-appointed panel of outside experts, called into Seattle this week to study a four-lane Alaskan Way tunnel and other highway options along the waterfront, dissolved itself Friday, saying there's not enough time to do the job right.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Christine Gregoire recently reconvened the review panel and gave it a deadline of Tuesday to address several questions, including whether the public can rely on the city government's cost estimate of $3.4 billion for a four-lane tunnel.

"We decided that time is too short for us to do anything meaningful," said panelist Don Forbes, a former Oregon transportation director.

In two weeks, city voters will receive their ballots for an all-mail election; they must be postmarked by March 13. Two advisory measures will ask voters whether they endorse replacing the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel or a cheaper elevated structure.

Mayor Greg Nickels' staff says that a four-lane tunnel would save $1.2 billion, compared to an earlier six-lane tunnel option. The mayor and City Council oppose any new elevated highway.

Four of the eight panelists met with the state Department of Transportation's project team this week, but Forbes said there was little or no new information since January, when the state halted its brief review of the so-called "Tunnel Lite."

However, Forbes said the DOT is looking not just at the four-lane tunnel, but also a narrower version of the politically abandoned six-lane tunnel. The lanes and shoulders would be slimmer than national highway standards, but wider than many U.S. tunnels.

Forbes said he saw no information about a rumored four-lane "Elevated Lite."

Last month, the panel said the city's four-lane tunnel concept, with shoulders used as exit lanes during rush hour, "shows promise" and deserves more study.

Marianne Bichsel, a spokeswoman for Nickels, said Friday that without oversight from the panel, any upcoming reports by the DOT lack credibility. She said the DOT is caving to political pressure by anti-tunnel House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and others.

"Clearly, they're scrambling. I hope they will acknowledge this process has fallen apart," she said.

The governor's spokespersons and DOT managers could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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