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Originally published March 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 14, 2007 at 11:29 AM

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Viaduct? Tunnel? Voters say no and no

Seattle voters Tuesday jilted both a new viaduct and a tunnel as replacements for the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Seattle Times staff reporters

No and heck no.

Seattle voters Tuesday jilted both a new viaduct and a tunnel as replacements for the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. While the results were clear, the impact was murky.

Results released Tuesday night showed widespread opposition to a new elevated highway on the downtown waterfront, with more than 55 percent rejecting it. Voters were even more harsh on the four-lane tunnel pushed by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, with nearly 70 percent opposed.

Nearly 100,000 ballots were counted Tuesday — more than half the total number of ballots the county expects to be returned in the $1 million all-mail election. Barring a dramatic change in voting trends in the uncounted ballots, both proposals will be defeated.

The outcome of the advisory vote will likely add momentum to a third choice that politicians kept off the ballot: the so-called surface option that would tear down the viaduct and route traffic onto downtown streets along with beefed-up transit.

Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, who favors that option, said he'll submit legislation today to effectively kill a tunnel by shifting $8 million in city funds that had been budgeted for a tunnel to work on designs for a surface plan.

"This clearly opens the door to an alternative solution," said Steinbrueck, who recently announced he would not seek re-election so he could dedicate more time to fighting a new viaduct.

But with the precise message sent by voters unclear, the future of the 54-year-old viaduct remains unsettled.

Six years have passed since the structure was damaged in the Nisqually earthquake, and engineers warn it could collapse if the city is shaken by another temblor.

Tuesday's vote results did not appear to immediately change the positions of some tunnel and viaduct supporters. However, city and state leaders from warring factions are expected to appear together at a news conference in Olympia today to announce some points of agreement.

Nickels characterized the vote as a repudiation of a new viaduct.

"The voters said we do not want another freeway along our waterfront. They want us to find a better answer. Now we have to work hard on how to get it done," Nickels said in a speech Tuesday night. He did not comment on voters' overwhelming repudiation of a waterfront tunnel he has long championed.

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Former Gov. Gary Locke, another tunnel backer, said he was not giving up on a tunnel and called on transportation experts to come up with a new tunnel proposal. He said six more months of delay would not be a long time to wait for a structure the city would have to live with for 100 years.

Pro-viaduct forces also claimed their favored option was not dead.

City Council President Nick Licata, who supports another viaduct, called the nearly 45-percent vote in favor of it "a pretty solid base."

"It will definitely keep it alive," he said. "I think that Olympia will have to moderate its stance, in taking into account some design elements, seeing if they can make it less bulky, less noisy, and seeing how much open space they can create on the waterfront."

The No Tunnel Alliance — a group supporting the viaduct rebuild — claimed victory over the better-funded tunnel supporters and was holding out hope the rebuild could still come out ahead as more votes are counted.

"We showed we have a better pulse on what the citizens of Seattle want than they do. Today is a great day for all of us," said Eugene Wasserman, a leader of the pro-viaduct group.

Despite the differing views, there was some indication that top politicians will try to make peace on the viaduct issue that has sharply divided them.

Today's news conference will be in Gov. Christine Gregoire's office. The chairwomen of the House and Senate transportation committees are expected to be there along with Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims.

They're widely expected to announce a truce of sorts. Lawmakers in recent days have talked about moving ahead with less-controversial construction work on the fringes of the viaduct debate: highway repairs at the south end, for example, that are needed no matter how the viaduct is replaced.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, who also will attend the news conference, called the truce "a breather on the waterfront so we can figure out something. There are parts on each end we can do," said Jarrett, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee.

Meanwhile, the debate would continue over the best way to proceed with the bulk of the project on the central waterfront.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the vote appears to definitively shut the door on a tunnel.

However, Brown wasn't ready to completely rule out replacing the viaduct with an elevated highway. "It would seem to me there would still be consideration of it, given that the vote is closer and that the so-called third [surface] option has not been completely fleshed out," she said.

The viaduct brawl reached its peak when Nickels accused Gregoire's office of suppressing a technical report that showed a four-lane tunnel might be able to safely carry enough traffic.

Gregoire and Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate have pushed to replace the viaduct with a new $2.8 billion elevated highway.

Nickels and a majority of the City Council have promoted the four-lane tunnel, with shoulders available as exit-only lanes during rush hour.

"Tunnel Lite" represented a last-ditch, cost-cutting effort by Nickels to win support for a tunnel after his original six-lane option drew widespread opposition. The city pegs the cost of the four-lane tunnel at $3.4 billion.

Both options put before voters were largely discredited before the first ballots were mailed out.

Gregoire and state lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly trashed the city's tunnel proposals as too expensive.

And even the biggest cheerleader for a new elevated highway, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, criticized the viaduct design put before voters as too big. He has suggested an elevated highway with a park on top. Chopp brushed by reporters Tuesday night, saying he had no comment on the viaduct vote.

Political leaders had long expected Tuesday's outcome, in part because polls had indicated weak support for a tunnel. Facing defeat, Nickels and other tunnel supporters recently shifted their political focus to defeating a new viaduct. Viaduct opponents raised more than $500,000, outspending the pro-rebuild campaign by nearly 20-to-1.

The Municipal League of King County urged voters to send in blank ballots as a protest, arguing more options should be considered, including other tunnel variations, the surface option or repair of the existing viaduct. Election officials said Tuesday they were not sure how many blank ballots had been received.

The surface option that now might get more attention has been touted by supporters as an environmentally friendly choice that would discourage reliance on cars and push for better transit.

Sims is working on a proposal and has discussed it with Gregoire's office. But the governor has said she's concerned that option can't carry enough traffic to replace the 110,000 cars a day that use the viaduct.

The election was the first in Seattle to be conducted entirely by mail. King County plans to switch to all-mail elections next year. About 342,000 absentee ballots were issued, including 133,000 to people who usually vote at the polls. Elections officials were projecting a 55-percent participation in the vote.

More ballots will be counted today.

Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Gilmore, Bob Young, Sharon Pian Chan, Nick Perry and Ralph Thomas contributed to this report.

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