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Originally published Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Deal gives Nickels a shot in the arm

Gov. Chris Gregoire's decision to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel represents a political victory for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was an early and vocal proponent of a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

He stumped for the tunnel option even as the governor declared it dead and voters nixed it in 2007. He believed in it even when state legislative leaders said it was too expensive and one City Council member called it "pure fantasy."

But a tunnel will emerge today as the choice of Gov. Chris Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims and Port of Seattle officials. The governor's decision to ask the Legislature to help fund a tunnel — a project recently considered financially impossible — represents a huge political turnaround. It was brought on, at least in part, by a quieter Nickels strategy that had him working behind the scenes for the past year and a half.

As an advisory group studied viaduct options, Nickels didn't publicly choose a favorite. Instead, he talked with community leaders about their interests and the possibility of a compromise.

A month ago, the advisory group of labor leaders, environmentalists and business leaders wrote a letter to Nickels, Sims and Gregoire expressing support for surface-street improvements — with a possible tunnel. Essentially, they agreed with what the mayor had been saying.

"Instead of the mayor picking a proposal and advocating for it, we stepped back and let the process come to a conclusion," Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said. "The fact that it came to a conclusion that met the city's original objective is very gratifying."

The process worked this time in part because it wasn't about political personalities and who was siding with whom, City Councilmember Sally Clark said.

"In some ways, I think you had to have the elected officials step back a little bit and have that stakeholder group," she said.

All along, the mayor has said he wanted to take down the double-decker highway and open downtown to the waterfront. At the state level, the governor insisted that a proposed surface-street option wouldn't move cars through downtown rapidly enough.

The political victory follows weeks of criticism over Nickels' handling of December's snowstorms. He now must figure out how the city will pay nearly $1 billion toward the viaduct project.

"What happened two years ago was people concentrated on disagreements," Nickels said Monday. This time, "I really think it was a large group of people kind of moving together toward consensus. ... Everybody gave something up."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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