Gregoire announces tunnel plans; car-tab taxes to pay for more transit
Gov. Chris Gregoire announced this morning that a two-mile, bored tunnel is her choice to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct on the Seattle waterfront. Construction would start in 2011 and the tunnel would open in 2015.
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Gov. Chris Gregoire announced this morning that a two-mile, bored tunnel is her choice to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct on the Seattle waterfront.
"This is not just about replacing a road. This is about building a 21st Century city," she said at news conference in Seattle.
She gave credit to all sides in the prolonged debate, including environmentalists, who wanted a non-highway waterfront with more transit.
"The solution must offer as little disruption [as possible] to businesses and residents during construction," she added.
The overall project is estimated at $4.25 billion, with $2.8 billion coming from state gas taxes and federal bridge funds. That is supposed to cover the tunnel construction, as well as most of an interchange and elevated segment in Sodo.
Construction would start in 2011 and the tunnel would open in 2015, the governor said. The tunnel would go mainly beneath First Avenue and connect to Aurora Avenue North, in the South Lake Union area.
A group calling itself Yes Viaduct! wants to stop plans for the tunnel, and filed an initiative this morning to do so. The group has 180 days to gather 18,000 signatures to put their proposal opposing the tunnel before the Seattle City Council.
The initiative would block any construction on city property of the viaduct.
The council can enact the construction ban into law, send it to a vote of the people or put two options on the ballot.
Also this morning, the Port of Seattle will consider a $300 million contribution to the project in Sodo, to help offset the high cost of the tunnel farther north, compared to a surface or elevated roadway.
King County will seek state authority to raise more money through a car-tab tax of 1 percent to fund $190 million for transit capital costs, mainly for buses, along with $15 million a year for operations.
More transit would be needed as the tunnel, two lanes each direction, instead of the three lanes each direction on the viaduct and lack a Western Avenue exit serving Belltown, Interbay and Ballard. The county says 17,000 daily transit trips would be added because of the project.
King County Executive Ron Sims said the car-tab tax would allow up to a 25 percent increase for transit throughout the county.
If state lawmakers allow it, the 1 percent car-tab tax ($100 annually on a $10,000 vehicle) would be enacted by the Metropolitan King County Council.
"No politician wants to take a vote to raise taxes, but we're all elected to solve problems. This is how we earn our pay," said County Councilmember Dow Constantine, D-West Seattle.
The city of Seattle intends to raise $930 million for associated projects, including a new Elliott Bay sea wall, promenade, and transit.
Of that amount, $130 million would go to a First Avenue streetcar from the Chinatown International District either to Westlake Center (linking with the South Lake Union streetcar), or to Seattle Center, according to pro-streetcar Seattle City Councilmember Jan Drago.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels still intends to rebuild Mercer Street and the Spokane Street Viaduct; a statement says the city would use federal funds, though specifics were not issued.
Questioned afterward, Nickels suggested that city tax increases might not be proposed for another three, four, or five years, when the economy would presumably bounce back from recession.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, sent a skeptical statement out this morning, saying he's concerned about the suggestion of $1.8 billion in new local taxes on local residents.
"Will they also be on the hook for the overruns?" Chopp wondered, calling overruns a "real possibility." He compared the tunnel to Boston's notorious "Big Dig." He also wondered if a four-lane tunnel would move enough people and products through the city.
Gregoire didn't mention tolls, and they weren't in the funding strategy released this morning.
Previously, some state officials have predicted tolls would be necessary to fund either a tunnel, or related lane and ramp expansions on nearby Interstate 5.
The viaduct, whose central section was built in 1953, sunk slightly since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and four columns were reinforced last year. It carries 109,000 vehicles per weekday at its busiest point.
"We must take down the viaduct before Mother Nature takes it down for us," Gregoire said.
The project has been featured in some national and international news coverage as an example of a bungled U.S. megaproject, because a decision on how to replace the viaduct has dragged on for nearly eight years. Gregoire's challenger, Republican Dino Rossi, advocated a bored tunnel in his campaign last year, while Gregoire warmed to the idea in just the last few weeks.
"This is the time for compromise; the time for compromise is now," said Nickels. "The tunnel, along with surface and transit improvements, will give us a project that will enjoy broad public support." A Times reader-response poll was showing two-thirds in favor at mid-day today.
Gregoire has previously set a 2012 date to tear the old structure down, but may back off that deadline. Gregoire said today she's having engineers study whether it can last until 2015, perhaps under load restrictions.
Outside, a handful of protesters with the No Tunnel Alliance rallied against building a tunnel.
Among their arguments: A tunnel would cost too much; the geological issues associated with building it have not been sufficiently investigated; the structure would lack enough on- and offramps; it could prove a fire hazard; and would create problems for the maritime industry because of restrictions on transporting hazardous materials through tunnels.
"They just want to have a pretty park," said Doug Dixon, co-owner of Pacific Fishermen Shipyard in Ballard.
The news conference, in the World Trade Center, was crammed with perhaps 300 boosters, government staff, and representatives of interest groups.
After protesting outside, Dixon came in and sharply questioned the governor about how fuels, paints, and other hazardous materials would get past downtown, since they would not be allowed inside a tunnel.
"We're going to work with you sir, that's what this is about — I do not have answers to every question," Gregoire said. "Let's work together."
The Associated Press contributed to this report, as did staff reporters Andrew Garber and Sara Jean Green. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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