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Originally published Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Tunnel option was disliked by nearly everybody

In February 2007, Gov. Christine Gregoire dismissed the idea of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel. A few weeks later, Seattle voters overwhelming rejected a tunnel proposal. But now a combination of politics and new information apparently have pushed the tunnel back to the forefront.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Tunnels are hard to kill in Seattle.

That's been proved, repeatedly, when it comes to ideas for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with an underground route.

Gov. Christine Gregoire dismissed a proposed tunnel in February 2007, largely because of safety issues, and said it would be "irresponsible." Seattle voters overwhelmingly rejected a tunnel proposal a few weeks later. Earlier this month, transportation planners said it wasn't a near-term option, and endorsed either using surface streets or building another elevated highway.

But now a combination of politics and a second look at new tunneling technology apparently have pushed the option back to the forefront.

Interest groups in Seattle just this month coalesced around the idea of replacing the viaduct with a tunnel and pressed Gregoire to more seriously consider the option.

The state Legislature had set a Dec. 31 deadline for Gregoire to decide how to replace the viaduct, but the governor's office now says a decision will be made sometime this month.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said the governor was right to act on their concerns. "I think it is respectful of the process," she said.

In addition, several transportation and tunneling experts argued in recent months that a bored tunnel could be a lot cheaper than the state had previously thought.

In explaining the renewed interest in the tunnel, Judd said Gregoire has only recently turned her full attention on the viaduct replacement.

She was busy with her re-election campaign this past fall, and more recently focused on crafting a proposed state budget to deal with a nearly $6 billion shortfall, he said.

She has a right, he said, to take a step back. "She is the one who has the burden of making this decision. So it is her choice to reach out and force us to go back and rethink things."

The bored tunnel is not a new idea, however. The state Department of Transportation has conducted limited studies of the option, and Dino Rossi, the Republican candidate for governor last fall, floated the idea of such a tunnel to replace the viaduct. Gregoire's campaign questioned his cost estimates as too low.

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Rossi, contacted on vacation in Arizona, just said "go figure" when told that the governor was now considering a bored tunnel. "It is the most logical solution, which was why I proposed it," he said.

If Gregoire ends up recommending a tunnel, it's not clear how that would play out in the Legislature.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, seemed skeptical. "I'd have to take a look at what they are proposing. It was already rejected by the voters. I don't think the voters were distinguishing between one kind of tunnel versus another. Also the question is how do you pay for it," he said.

Chopp has his own option he's been pushing: a four-lane elevated viaduct covered by a park, with buildings underneath. He wouldn't comment on his plans for that proposal.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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